First-year students in the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts are launching Story City, a series of 40 audio projects to be experienced via mobile phone and headphones at various locations across Lincoln.
Created through the College of Fine and Performing Arts’ Story Lab course this semester, the project will be celebrated by students, friends and family from 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 30.
“If people come to participate in our Story City showing on Oct. 30 (or anytime), they should expect to hear a variety of stories, explore Lincoln and take part in some immersive experiences,” said Hannah Pedersen, a freshman emerging media arts major. “Since the Story City project is audio-based, the participant can move at their own pace as they find themselves listening in on the hidden stories of the city.”
Listeners can begin by downloading the free Echoes interactive sound walks app, available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play. Visit the Carson Center’s homepage on Echoes to get started.
A map and a description of the audio projects will also be available on the Carson Center’s website on Oct. 30.
“Story City really combines a few different aspects of storytelling, which I think is really exciting. Plus, it’s COVID-19-friendly, both in terms of production and in terms of experience,” said Ash E. Smith, assistant professor of emerging media arts. “I think that’s something we’re all thirsty for is how to still have cultural and art events in this time.”
The concept of these geolocative stories is that GPS (Global Positioning System—or your location) triggers hearing the story on your phone through the app.
“Imagine on your phone, you download this Echoes app, and then each of our students have created and designed their own almost imagine like a radio play, however it’s super site-specific. So you’re walking, you put your earbuds in with your phone, and you wander around the city. You have these layers of what’s real, and then you have the story layers, which you’re listening to, and they’re quite fantastically all over the place,” Smith said.
As an example, Pedersen created “The Audition,” which begins at the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at 13th and Q streets.
The description reads: “The world is composed of many things, people, and organizations that we never encounter. One of these organizations is the Punctuation Corporation, a top secret agency composed of individuals within Lincoln. Their operations primarily focuses on collecting information to be resold to clients, but occasionally they get involved in risky business. Listen to the directions of the anonymous, as you make your dissent into the secret society. Find clues, explore the lost memories of the past, and get out of your comfort zone while proving yourself to be a valuable recruit to their mission.”
“My project is an audio immersive experience where the participant is trying to prove themselves worthy of being a secret agent in the Punctuation Corporation,” Pedersen said. “My inspiration came from exploring the downtown Lincoln area. I wanted to create a project that encouraged the participant to visit businesses and locations they may not have otherwise. I’ve always loved the idea of becoming a secret agent, so I decided to give my audience the chance to do so.”
There are several physical components that the agent must do to complete their mission, so Pedersen recommends starting her story between 3-5 p.m. She partnered with local youth culture agency, Archrival.
“Archrival is a youth culture agency that helps design and create immersive experiences for major brands such as Red Bull and Adidas. With the help of their team, we were able to add another layer to the audio experience to make it feel even more real,” Pedersen said. “Since this part of the story relies on their store being open, we decided that starting the immersive experience in the afternoon would both allow Archrival to help and the participant to complete the rest of the tasks on time before the other businesses closed.”
Pedersen said creating this world in audio form was very different from any other project she has done.
“Usually, I create stories in a written or visual format for people to read and/or view,” she said. “Before starting this project, I had listened to very few podcasts. I was not sure how to approach this new way of audio storytelling. In the end, I decided to approach it similar to an audio book and then build on it from there. I had to keep in mind the participant would be hearing both the sounds of the city and their secret agent soundtrack as I created the audio pieces.”
In another example, Caleb Kirilov, a sophomore emerging media arts major from Omaha, Nebraska, created “The Noire Tapes,” which begins at the Student Union at 14th and R streets.
The description reads, “You play as a Lincoln Police Department Inspector in a murder case. Listen to each tape chronologically and arrest the echo.”
“Each stop you make unlocks an audio log of the victim’s conversations at nearby downtown locations,” Kirilov said. “Later on, you listen to interrogation tapes from three suspects to find out who has the biggest hole in their story. You make your final verdict by walking to the murder’s flat. If you make the wrong choice, game over.”
Kirilov said he got inspiration for his project from the noire-themed shooter game, Halo 3: ODST.
“The main story of the game occurs during the day, but a straggling member of the squad, played by you, scours the city during nighttime. You find clues like used medical supplies, a broken sniper rifle, a caved-in helmet, and more to uncover the journey of your squad like an interactive puzzle. I found that idea to be engaging and almost ethereal. That’s why I recommend my project to be experienced in a group during the dark quiet hours of Lincoln. I want players listening to the sounds of bustling O Street rush hour while in front of empty midnight streets. I think it adds to the atmosphere while trying something new in presentation.”
His background is in making short films, so this was a new experience for him.
“All the stories and audio I’ve captured have been for a linear medium, like film, podcast or music. Something you’re supposed to experience in one sitting,” he said. “My Echoes project can be experienced in whatever order the user chooses. If you want to go straight to the murderer’s house off the get-go, by all means. I had to put myself in a different mindset than filmmaking, and that was a learning experience. I felt like a game designer, and that was uniquely thrilling. These are the kinds of stories I want to tell, and interactivity is the direction I want to go.”
Other stories begin at locations such as the Lincoln Station at 201 N. 7th St. in the Haymarket; Stransky Park near 17th and Harrison Ave.; the north side of the Nebraska State Capitol at 1445 K. St.; and Holmes Lake, among many other locations throughout the city. Many of the stories begin on campus, in downtown Lincoln and in the Haymarket.
“When we started this project, I had everyone submit a news story that they found about Lincoln,” Smith said. “And from that, we did a workshop where we built off of those news stories. Depending on the student, we have a range, where some of the projects tend to be like games, where you’re playing this secret spy agent through the city of Lincoln. And then there are others that have done things like their story includes having to go into all of these Lincoln establishments and get a soda or do an improv scene with people at Archrival. That’s kind of interesting. I can even imagine this format as a way to develop further story layer possibilities with local Lincoln businesses or as a way for guests in local Lincoln hotels to get out and explore the city through a new lens.”
The app will guide you where to stand to begin the story.
“When you go into this Echoes app, you’ll see that people have created content all over the world that you can do, but right now, the only ones in Lincoln, Nebraska, are the ones created by our students,” Smith said.
Smith said this format is an interesting way to experience storytelling.
“It’s also getting at this idea of thinking how there are always these story layers everywhere,” Smith said. “When people were bringing in their articles, on a piece of land, there’s everything from indigenous peoples that were and are here, and then prairie or homesteaders that were moving through. And then thinking all the way into future narratives. So that urban exploration and urban ecology really help us think through and excavate past layers and past histories, but then also contemplate the future and let us experience them in the present, and I think that’s very cool. It’s a tool for reimagining the city, and that’s why we call it STORY CITY.”
Kirilov said location-based experiences like Echoes are invaluable.
“CDC guidelines recommend we stay away from large crowds indoors,” he said. “Echoes is a great way to get out of the house for a couple of hours to have a provocative, safe, journey outdoors. It brings back something we miss in a new and unexpected way.”
Smith said it’s important for students to be engaged in the community of Lincoln, as this assignment allowed them to be.
“I do think it’s an attempt at engaging with the city as students,” Smith said. “I think it gets them to think about what their own local community means, what being a citizen means and what being a part of a lively civic means to a student. We need young people to add to how we can reimagine ourselves out of this current moment. Yes, they can be escapes. But I think they are also ways to experience something that might be forgotten or overlooked or seemingly not important.”
Smith hopes a lot of people get outside walking and experience these audio projects.
“I want the city of Lincoln to come and experience this,” Smith said. “That is what they created this for—the city of Lincoln. It’s almost like a love letter to the city of Lincoln. It’s another way to have an adventure or to experience the city. I think it’s really fun.”
Pedersen hopes people come outside to experience their audio stories.
“People should check out our audio stories to expose themselves to a different type of storytelling and experience Lincoln in a new way,” she said. “For those interested in storytelling, I think it would also be beneficial for people to see the creative projects the Emerging Media Art program develops.”