Assuming you don’t live in the Outer Battery, what do you really know about the little neighbourhood at the entrance to the harbour? Colourful houses? steep cliffs? That sign that says “Never Confuse Education with Intelligence”?
If you don’t live in a place, how much do you really know it? Yeah, the visual evidence is all there for you to inspect: there’s a house, there’s a cat, there’s a hill, there’s a rock.
But the truth—the real guts of a place—always seems kind of locked away.
I’m standing on the corner of Signal Hill Road and Battery Road, my headphones are in, and I’m going on an audio adventure. This adventure is facilitated by a new app—Inside Outside Battery—presented by Chris Brookes, award-winning audio documentary maker, sound artist, and resident of the Battery. Brookes and his partners, radio documentarist and folklorist Annie McEwen and musician Jake Nicoll of Run to the Rocks and The Burning Hell, have been working on their soundwalk project for two years now. The app is launching on iTunes this month.
A soundwalk is like an audio tour, but the goal isn’t exactly to teach you the area’s history. What a soundwalk really does is reveal other landscapes underneath the visual one. Stephan Crasneanscki, innovator of the soundwalk, has created soundwalks everywhere from the Bronx to Shanghai, revealing secret worlds hiding in plain sight.
As you get lost in the secret world of the Battery, you phase into wartime radio broadcasts, recitations, jump-rope rhymes, tunes for the harmonica and guitar, and the remembrances of locals. The project also commissioned a new short story from the writer Lisa Moore, which you can follow by walking down Schoolhouse Hill.
As you walk, pieces begin, stay with you for a while and fade out as you move through an area.
At one point, painter and Battery resident Jean-Claude Roy talks about where he likes to situate himself when he’s going to paint the landscape. He’s talking about which rock he cleans his brushes on, and you look down at your feet and you see paint spatter. You’re standing where he stood, and you’re looking through his eyes, and he’s tells you what he sees when he looks exactly where you’re now looking. He
interprets the landscape differently than you do because he’s an expressionist-colourist painter and you’re you. It’s a strangely affecting experience.
“You look at something from a vantage point, outside it, but you hear things—you’re in the sound, it’s all around you,” says Brookes. “You may shut your eyes, but not your ears.” When listeners walk through the Battery, looking at things, they simultaneously hear the inside story about those things. “You don’t have to take your eyes away to read a text or watch a video. You can experience the surface of the Battery and be deep inside at exactly the same time.”
rookes is familiar with unconventional mergers of sound and history. Four years ago, Brookes was one of the two creators of [HERE]SAY (www.heresay.ca), the award-winning sound/story installation along Water Street and the Outer Battery that allows cellphone users to call a number and hear a story attached to that location. “The idea of revealing a hidden landscape of human experience started there for me,” says Brookes.
Parks Canada estimates that 90,000 walkers make their way through the Battery every year, and Brookes figures at least half are wearing headphones as they walk.
“Instead of listening to the natural sounds around them, they’re hearing Arcade Fire for the 200th time,” says Brookes. “We’re trying to infiltrate their ears.”
That aural infiltration happens in unexpected ways. Standing on a rock, near the cannon on Fort Waldergrave, looking out at the city, poet Don McKay is expounding on the nature of rocks. I wander away, up another path, to find a new vantage point, just to see what there is to hear, “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” style. I walk up the slanted trail and McKay fades out. Soon, there’s a whisper in my ear: “Want to
know a secret? Follow me.” So, I follow.
The voice tells me that there’s a hidden path, beyond the black rail. I hop the rail. The obscured path leads past a steep drop, and into another memory, which I won’t ruin here. Spoilers. It’s best experienced on the spot. In fact, it can only be experienced at that spot, which I figure is the point of this exercise. “We had the option to add a ‘remote trigger’ to the iPhone map audio so people could stay
home and listen,” says Brookes, “But that’s exactly what I don’t want to do.”
Inside Outside Battery launches on iTunes in mid-October. Visit www.batteryradio.com for more info.