Past, Present, Future
Posted on: 28/10/2016

Creative technologist Rory Gianni and writer and film maker Shona Main are working with Producer of The Story Box, Alyth resident Marian Bruce, to make her vision a reality. Together with old timers, young people and children from the town’s Primary School, they will transform a decommissioned red telephone box in the Town Square into a community-led audio art installation, which captures oral histories of the people of Alyth. In a similar way to Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’, the iconic red telephone box will allow the user to hear stories from four different eras, including the most recent catastrophic flooding events in Alyth in July 2015. Rory and Shona spoke with Clare Cooper, Co-producer of the Cateran’s Common Wealth initiative as they begin work on realising the project.

The Red Telephone Box in Alyth Town Square

“Tell us about where you came from and what the main influences have been on your lives and the kinds of creative practice you are involved in now?”

Rory: “Recently, I attended the Mozilla Festival in London, an event which describes itself as “The world’s leading festival for the open internet movement”. The festival covers journalism, science, activism, digital culture and more. Unlike the usual conferences with a few sessions at any one time, this event is comprised of several hundred workshops, discussions, and demonstrations.

Participation and diversity are encouraged. Anyone can submit a session proposal. It’s not easy to describe unless you’ve experienced it yourself. The reason I point to it, is that it embodies the “hacker ethos” that has influenced and inspired me from a young age. If I had to sum it up, it’s an ethos that’s playful, creative, and sees the world as changeable.”

Mozilla Festival 2016

Shona:“My parents had both had been climbers and lovers of the hills and whilst there were no mountains in Shetland where I grew up, I inherited their appreciation of nature, of having a relationship with the land and of feeling free.

But ours was also a hugely social world. Alongside the beauty of the sky and the beaches and the peat bog, Shetland has a great culture of community and intergenerational solidarity, so since childhood I have been endlessly fascinated by people, the way they speak, their ideas of themselves and the world.

As a teenager I moved to Dundee to train to be a journalist and wanted to change the world so studied law at Dundee University and was involved in local politics. However, I am not suited to the adversarial: I don’t like the winner and loser culture and struggled to change anything on these kinds of platforms. So I moved back into journalism and then tried filmmaking and made the film Clavel (2014), about a Shetland crofter.

I am currently a practice-led doctoral candidate at Stirling University and Glasgow School of Art, exploring the nature and ethics of the relationship between documentarist and subject through the work of the filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson who filmed Shetland crofters in the 1930s then, in the 1970s -when she was in her 70s – the Inuit of Nunavut Canada. My research will take me to the communities she filmed in, in Shetland and the Arctic (scheduled for 2018) and will visually explore the dynamic of the relationships I will create with these communities.”

Drumderg Wind farm from the Cateran Trail, Photo, Clare Cooper

“Both of you are involved in projects with ‘bigger than self’ values, projects that draw attention to how we could create a more sustainable human presence on earth and how we can develop greater compassion for each other and the natural world. What do you see are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing us all right now and how are you are choosing to engage with them through your work?”

Rory: “The 60-80% of fossil fuel reserves are unburnable if the world has a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C. These reserves represent trillions of dollars in the valuations of publicly listed companies, and by extension the investments, pensions, and saving funds the world over. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, issued a warning about this last September. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the world is waking up to these facts quickly enough.

If I had to predict, we’ll see the bursting of a massive ‘fossil-fuel bubble’. Governments around the world will need to intervene to prevent meltdown. I imagine it as the 21st century equivalent of what happened during the abolition of slavery, where vast sums of public money was used to compensate slave owners for the loss of their ‘assets’. In our case, we’ll see a global fossil-fuel asset bailout, but on orders of magnitude larger than the bailouts of 2008.

Given these challenges, it’s startling to think the most brilliant minds and the vast computing power that’s currently dedicated to getting people to click more adverts. That’s why I got involved with organising Cleanweb events. Cleanweb is a network of digital innovators, designers, researchers, and developers looking at how to tackle sustainability problems. We get together to talk about any ideas, projects, or trends that might have potential to improve our environment.

I’ve recently started reading a lot more about commons-based peer production and the opportunities it holds for democratising and ‘localising’ manufacturing. The P2P Foundation has lots of material on the topic including ongoing projects such as the ‘Open Source Ecology‘ project.”

Tiree Tech Wave, Photo, Rory Gianni

Shona: “This is such a great question: I love the mentality behind it. I have been a buddhist since I was 19 and whilst I am very politically minded, my buddhist practice means I am more interested and persuaded by the importance of human revolution which needs to happen before and together with any sort of political revolution.

Human revolution is about changing ourselves so that our day-to-day interactions with others have more meaning and value. It’s about developing a warmheartedness so you can locate and connect to others’. The greatest challenge we face today are the divisions in the world that are being created, multiplied and exploited – but how do we respond to this? I think it’s about recognising that this isn’t something that is just happening far away or on another level, but that this division happens in our own lives and communities – and sometimes we can be the divider.

There is a saying in buddhism ‘cherish the person in front of you’ – whoever they are. This is really hard because sometimes it feels impossible to even be in the same room as some folk. But person by person, by really endeavouring to fundamentally respect someone, to truly listen to them and to find and reveal your shared humanity, that is how divisions can be bridged, things can change and you can free yourself from the noise – the unhappy ways of thinking and being – that hinder your and others’ happiness.

I find it really enriching to take time with people, all sorts of people. This is maybe why filmmaking suits me: you need to spend a lot of time with the person you are filming, listening to them, observing them, seeing past the surface aspects of their presentation and trying to connect to their true self.”

Alyth’s 15thc Pack Bridge, Photo, Clare Cooper

What you will both be doing to turn The Story Box into reality?

Rory: My role will be to handle the technology side of the project. In short that will involve programming a Raspberry-Pi (low power computer), and building an interface so visitors can select from the Story Box recordings.

At the start of the project we had a co-design session with Alyth residents where we imagined how the box might work using cardboard. We had some great contributions and in particular good consideration of accessibility issues e.g. how more than one person could experience the installation, and wheelchair access.

Young people’s contributions are important to the project too. So I’ll also be delivering sound and technology workshops at the primary school and youth partnership with Shona.

Shona: “I will be working with Rory with P7s of Alyth Primary School and the young people involved in the Alyth Youth Partnership. We will help them learn about listening, the science of sound and how to make sound record recordings of the world around them and of each other and themselves. These recordings will be used in the Story Box: when someone visits the Story Box, they will hear these young people’s voices talking about their lives and their hopes for the future.”

Fun and Games in the 1930’s, Photo courtesy of the Laing Photographic Collection

“How would you like to see the kinds of creative digital technology you both work with used to help build more sustainable livelihoods in rural areas of Scotland like Eastern Perthshire?”

Rory: “I’d like to see more technology developed with rural contexts and needs in mind. Private and public investment, funding, and research is often urban-centric. It’s one of a few biases that comes with the territory.

The ‘Tiree Tech Wave‘, is an example of an event that aims to raise these issues. It’s a 3-4 day technology retreat, held on the isle of Tiree twice a year. Last October the rural centre on the island was transformed into a full blown maker-space by a contingent from Cardiff University. The place was filled with 3D-scanners, 3D-printers, laser cutters, and students designing products for the rural centre.

Although the Tech Wave is mainly populated by visitors, it’s open to everyone and it’s run by Alan Dix, who lives on Tiree. As a result, links have been forged with local residents, the school, and the community trust.”

Shona: “We live life so fast, and we’re so busy and stressed that we forgot to take time to listen and talk to people. But it’s only when you stop and pause (and sometimes life makes us) and look at and listen to the people around us you become aware of this real richness in our lives. When you start listening, be it the sound of a heron in the canal or the woman who works in the shop talking about her dad who died when she was young, this moment of concentration alters our perception of everything and has the effect of unblocking something, making us more able to hear and see and feel. Documenting someone and the environment they live in – like what the Storybox will do – means we can save something of this richness and celebrate it. The development and increasing accessibility of digital technology makes it possible for most people to find their own way of documenting their and others’ lives and sharing it with the wider community. A community that understands that its history and its people is its greatest resource, is one that flourishes and prospers.”