Articles

Walking the Sound of Shaktoolik

We’re back with more inspirational material to help you innovate with live events.

This is the sixth in an occasional series of essays. We hope it will spur a conversation between you and our past Localore producers. They’re ready to to help you “go outside” and tell stories in live spaces across America. We’ll have more news ahead about AIR’s #LocaloreLive! microgrants, which will support innovative approaches to creating new work in the “far corners” of local communities.

We’re proud to introduce you to Isaac Kestenbaum and Josephine Hotlzman:

Shaktoolik Soundwalk and Frontier of Change, KNBA in Anchorage, Alaska

Alaskan license plates say: “The Last Frontier.”  But for many who live there, it’s the first frontier—the edge of climate change.  The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet, threatening not only wildlife but the way of life for communities whose ground is literally changing beneath them.

It can be easy to understand global warming on an intellectual level: how many degrees warmer the planet will be, how high the seas will rise.  But with our Localore: Finding America project, Frontier of Change, a partnership with Anchorage radio station KNBA, we wanted to make people understand what it actually felt like to live through such a profound shift.  

So we made a soundwalk and dropped it into the center of downtown Anchorage.  As an audio form, soundwalks have been around for some time; notable soundwalk makers include Janet Cardiff, the Soundwalk Collective, Pejk Malinovski, and recently the company Detour.  Most soundwalks comment on the immediate environment—think a museum audio tour.  But for ours we wanted to try something different; we wanted to virtually transport listeners to these threatened Alaskan communities through sound and movement.

We chose this because in Alaska, the urban-rural divide is more than just cultural.  It’s physical. Alaska is big. Really big. Check out this website that lets you compare the size of Alaska to other states.  Even in Alaska, most people don’t travel to small villages, which are usually two plane rides and hundreds of miles from Alaska’s urban center of Anchorage.

 

Eugene Asicksik, mayor of the village of Shaktoolik and president of the Native Corporation, standing on Shaktoolik’s berm.

 

As Localore producers, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to travel far and wide—and we wanted to bring those stories back to the state’s most populated city in a meaningful and engaging way.  Especially the story of the village of Shaktoolik. We interviewed many residents of that small village, including: mayor Eugene Asicksik, who spoke of Shaktoolik’s efforts to build a sea wall to protect itself from being swept into the ocean, and Palmer and Fena Sagoonick, who spoke about what it feels like to live under threat of climate change. We toured the new school and cafeteria, which doubled as a storm shelter, walked the mile-long seawall, visited a church service and community potluck.

The result of our reporting was a half-hour immersive soundwalk, which incorporated binaural (3-D) field recordings, interviews, sound design and an original music score composed by local musician, James Dommek, Jr.  

To present this soundwalk, we partnered with the Anchorage Museum to pop up in their lobby on a Friday in May.  Climate change can be an off-putting subject, even to the most climate-conscious audience.  To counteract this, we decided to be a little playful. We designed and created a “virtual reality travel agency,” complete with a departure board, plane tickets, flight attendant uniforms and in-flight snacks.  Though the walk could be self-guided, the event allowed participants to walk a mile together through downtown Anchorage. People left in groups, collectively experiencing the soundwalk with the direction of the walk guide “flight attendant.”

Every “flight” that evening sold out, even one that left with an imminent downpour.  When the rain did arrive, rather than ruin the soundwalk, it actually served to serendipitously enhance the experience, as the weather coincided with the part of the soundwalk about a major storm hitting the village.

The greatest success of the event, beyond the attendance, was that every member of the station was involved in some way.  The head grant-writer unflappably gave out tickets at the table, while the head of sponsorship dutifully wore a neon orange vest and helped shepard the soundwalkers.  Others helped give out flyers, mark the path, document the event, etc. It would have been impossible without everyone at the station chipping in. One station staff member told us that it was because we’d created an environment where everyone at KNBA felt invested in the project’s success, rather than feeling like it was extra work for them.

If you’re considering a soundwalk, don’t underestimate the amount of work that goes into the logistics. You’ll be producing a sound-rich long form documentary, planning the route for the walk, making sure everyone has headphones and a way to play audio, publicizing it.  It’s also important to have partners who can help spread the word, and who are open to trying new things, as KNBA was. Likewise, the term “soundwalk” isn’t a household name, so you’ll have to educate your audience. For our second event, we created an “audio scavenger hunt” which utilized similar principles of engagement, and mobile place-based audio storytelling as the soundwalk, with a more participatory and accessible approach.

One of the main goals of the project was to help KNBA reach a new audience and tell the story of climate change in a new way.  This soundwalk did both. The partnership with the Anchorage museum helped reach a new group of people living in Anchorage who hadn’t been familiar with the station; and the soundwalk showed that immersive multimedia storytelling doesn’t need flashy technology like an Oculus Rift or an iPhone app or even GPS capability.  You can create an augmented reality experience with the tools available to you.

Josephine Holtzman and Isaac Kestenbaum are longtime collaborators.  They’ve recently formed their own production company, Future Projects Media.  They’d be happy to answer any questions about the project and their approach.  Reach them at frontierofchange@gmail.com