Very soon we will launch our 4th location-aware audio app, entitled Site: WA&FC (Ballston). This app was commissioned by the Ballston BID as part of their ongoing Public Displays of Innovation initiative. We're honored to be among some other really talented artists creating work as part of this series as well.
I want to give a little bit of context as to how this work came about -- and also provide a bit of background.
When we created our first location-aware app, The National Mall, it was entirely a labor of love. We collaborated with a handful of great people, such as developer Bradley Feldman, designers YASLY and Waxfang and others, to realize it, and released the app for free as we've done for each subsequent app. What we didn't think about when we started it was how we would continue to maintain it with no source of revenue. We wanted the apps to remain free, but as time went on and operating systems upgraded, the apps began functioning less reliably and some we actually needed to pull from the App Store at various points. We wanted to keep them available for download but didn't want to deliver a less than great experience and simply didn't have the time or funding to maintain them on the consistent basis that was required.
While Ballston isn't our first app commission (SXSW Interactive asked us to create one for the streets surrounding the festival two years ago), it did seem like something new for us. We had always envisioned creating these works in locations of our choosing that we were inspired by and felt compelled to attempt a sonic mapping of the space. And this was a situation where we were being approached to create new work for an area that, while very walkable, is more of a downtown neighborhood than a park. But, after much discussion, it felt like the right move for a couple of reasons. Firstly, over the past few years, we've been inspired by people working in disciplines like landscape architecture, who are creating an intervention or addressing a particular issue that they've been brought on to examine. They are hired to approach a space, taking into consideration its usage, its history, its limitations and its possibilities, and apply their creativity to it. And while our work is certainly very different than that of an architect or an urban planner, we do think it shares some similarities in that it is work that interacts with and responds to a physical space and takes into consideration how people move throughout an area. As we began to think about it that way, we saw it as a chance to create an audio mapping that would, in a very subtle way, tell the story of the Ballston region. The work is essentially two zones that run along the streets that create the boundaries for the Ballston neighborhood: Fairfax Drive and Wilson Blvd. Fairfax Drive was the thoroughfare that ran through Arlington County over a hundred years ago. It was also home to the Ballston stop of the WA&FC railway, from which the work takes its title. On the other side is Wilson Blvd, which has come to represent change and development. When we met with the Ballston BID, they described these roads as representing two different parts of Ballston's identity. And so it struck us as an opportunity to create a work to reflect that: a single piece of music that would subtly shift from one space to the other, a sonic manifestation of the changes that have occurred in this area over the past century. The sounds associated with Fairfax are primarily performed on instruments that would have been available in 1900. Those tagged to Wilson Blvd represent a more contemporary pallete. The melodies remain the same, and the changes are subtle as you move from one space to another, but the streets between these two main roads become a sonic gradient depending on which you're closest to.
Returning to the decision to take on this project: It started becoming clear to us that this approach might be a way to keep these apps functioning and, just as importantly, free. The funding that this provided has helped us build a more robust engine and a better interface than we had before, one that we would eventually like to port to our existing apps as well as use as a the foundation for new location-aware apps going forward. It's our hope that this project will expose more people to the work we're doing, but we're also really grateful to be included in this initiative that takes a broader approach to what public art can be, with sound, video and other sorts of new media projects that will rollout throughout the year. Be sure to check out their website and learn about the other Public Displays of Innovation projects.