Features Published 2 March 2016

Hannah Bruce: “An archive is a hard sell”

The artist and creative technologist explains how her team has made the Hoxton Hall archive come alive, using smartphones, headphones, a custom-designed app.
Hannah Bruce
Handwritten documents from the Hoxton Hall archive. Photo: Minyung Im

Handwritten documents from the Hoxton Hall archive. Photo: Minyung Im

An archive is a hard sell. It conjures phrases such as “dry and dusty”. Images of half moon glasses. Even the word “materials” is somehow downgraded from soft fabric to stiff documents.

Recently I encountered an extraordinary 150 year-old collection of letters, photos, artifacts, music, minutes and other ephemera belonging to Hoxton Hall (a music hall built in London’s East End in 1863), after I was commissioned to artistically interpret this material for visitors to the recently renovated building.

I explored it as it changed from an attic full of vertiginous piles of stuff, into a catalogued, temperature-controlled collection housed at Hackney Archives. This transformation wasn’t just about recognising that this ‘stuff’ is valuable and needs acknowledgement. It’s also about enabling public access, both physically and digitally (and now, via artistic intervention.) I worked with an incredible team of artistic collaborators, none of whom were archivists. We soon realised that the problem with any archive (apart from the associations with half moon glasses) is the subjectivity of the stories people find in it.

As I responded to Hoxton Hall’s archival content, I found myself unconsciously relating to history through my own frames of reference. I tracked women of my own age through pages of minute books and left the men behind. I discovered letters from the Second World War with handwriting like my late grandmother’s, and I indulged in my memories of her for a while.

No matter how many stories I tell about it, or how many interpretations I represent, they are all my own story. If I were someone different, the same archive would have been different. Any collection, however random it seems, is inevitably ordered by our specific agendas or angles when we search it. (A characteristic of the human condition not lost on Google and other wallahs of targeted marketing algorithms.)

So my notebook filled with challenges: how to allow the archive to speak to each visitor in entirely different ways? How to enable each visitor to animate it according to their personal history? How to invite personal memory, sensation and emotion into the picture?

Of course, this brought me face to face with the complex relationship between ‘curation’ and ‘accessibility’. The archive became most metaphorically alive (accessible) to me when I added my own personal ‘items’ to its collection (such as memories of my grandmother, who never visited Hoxton Hall). Plus, the archive’s diversity and lack of professional curation were the very things that made it so accessible to me, because I could seek out the stuff which spoke to me personally.

Yet our job as artists was to create a piece of work that necessarily structured, narrated, and condensed this random archive into a curated form. Not a comforting realisation. This was when we realised that the technology we’d already started working with in other pieces might provide some solutions.

We ended up creating a bespoke App called SmallChoices. You can download the App to your own smartphone or tablet, or borrow a pre-prepared device from reception. As you move through the building wearing headphones, you are “guided” by characters (whose reliability varies, shall we say). If you follow the narrative (and navigate one of several routes correctly), the App will recognise bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons installed throughout the building. As you pass each beacon in a specific order, the App builds up a picture of where you are, and what route you are on, playing the appropriate soundfiles, and triggering particular lighting effects in that area. This means you can travel at your own pace, and the building’s lighting effects only respond to visitors exploring the archive via SmallChoices.

This neat bundle enabled three technological solutions:
1) a system that accommodated a basic level of visitor choice, and allowed the visitor to travel at their own pace
2) delivery of immersive sound that inflects the visitors other senses, rather than replacing them
c) a system that enabled a solo experience, without the visitor being escorted

One character invoked by our App is a young guide who is uninformed, but full of imagination and enthusiasm. You often hear her in the same room talking to you, but you never catch a glimpse of her. So you start to inhabit the ghost life of Hoxton Hall, although not in a spooky sense. You hear other invisible inhabitants, and identify people who “aren’t there”. We hope this allows you to look around on your own, and work out the things that interest you personally, without a critical over-informed real companion breathing down your neck. We use a combination of practical techniques to achieve this, including binaural technology (which is often described as 3D sound). It’s currently a favourite tool in a lot of headphone-theatre (examples include David Rosenberg’s work Ring, or Simon McBurney’s show The Encounter). Using headphones, binaural sound imitates the way our ears naturally hear the world, and can have a dramatic immersive effect. For example, many visitors are amazed when the person they hear descending the stairs behind them turns out to be invisible.

Something that really caught the imagination of our creative team was Stuart Hall’s idea that an archive is “a conversation between the past and the present”. By positioning each visitor as a unique embodied site for this “conversation”, things become interesting. Each of us is also a living archive: our individual archives include randomly absorbed facts, dreams, music collections, memories, fb posts, photos, etc. Rather than the present and the past being things that just happen around us, they are inescapably mixed up with our personal character, our individual imagination, our own unique identity within society and even the era in which we live. The person we are, and the way we see the world, affect the way we engage with the past and present. Our technology allows a visitor to layer their own realtime contemporary experience on top of the imaginary world which we have created. Its a subtle collision of visitor and history in one space and time.

There’s a pleasing undercurrent to this, because of the likelihood that you are using your own primary archival tool (your smartphone) to undertake this journey. So the very thing with which you curate your life’s archive, becomes the thing with which you now reflect upon it. And hopefully, you start to measure your imagination against the place. Your memory against fact. Your sense of self, against these fictional voices. What does an archive mean to you? How do you shape your own personal archive? How does that define your sense of self? Shape your identity? How will you be remembered? Is anything ever really lost?

“A Collection of Small Choices” runs at Hoxton Hall until 2018. For more information, or to book, visit the Hoxton Hall website. For more information about Hannah Bruce and Company, visit their website.

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