Gavin Wray

My WxWM2 talk on geotagging life experiences

Caricature of me drawn by Alex Hughes

Image credit: Alex Hughes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday I went to West by West Midlands 2 at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth, Birmingham.

Hosted by Shona McQuillan, there were some planned talks plus, in the unconference style, off-the-cuff talks by attendees. If the number chosen by Shona’s random number generator thingy matched the number on your sticky lapel label, you stood up and gave an impromptu talk. My number 31 popped up and here is my attempt to describe what (I think) I talked about.

What makes you who you are?

I grew up in Stockport, which I left aged 18 to go and study at The University of Hull. I came to Birmingham in 2001, the place I now consider home.

Thinking about heritage, where you’re from and being a self-exiled northerner welcomed into a new city, I’ve come to believe that your personality, individuality and heritage is really an aggregation of the experiences through life that have left some kind of permanent effect on you. The postcode of the hospital you were born in doesn’t equate to ‘this is where you’re from’.

The record shop owner, Rob, and his two assistants, Dick and Barry, in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.

The books you read, people you meet, conversations you take part in, films you watch, records you listen to, the places you visit - these things aggregate into a personal definition.

I’m reading Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage, a poet from West Yorkshire. One passage I love in this book is where Simon describes standing on West Nab, a high point that’s part of the Pennine watershed:

“Standing on top of West Nab, I can look out across a huge circumference of inspiration and influence. Starting westwards it’s Manchester and Lancashire, so it’s Joy Division and The Fall, it’s The Smiths and Elbow, it’s Magazine and The Buzzcocks and the Happy Mondays, it’s the Chameleons, it’s the Stone Roses, it’s Oasis (before they became their own tribute band), and beyond them, out towards the Mersey, it’s the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. Music, like the weather, always seemed to come from the north-west, and still does, carried on the prevailing breeze, perhaps.”

Listen to Simon reading the full passage starting at 5 minutes 8 seconds in this clip:

Simon Armitage Reads from Gig - Craig Smith on Vimeo

As well as music, Simon sweeps around the compass referring to poets, artists and landmarks that have made an impact on him.

Something about this geographical representation of cultural influences, and the anchor point of West Nab, struck a chord with me and got me thinking. (Also, on a superficial level, I feel a certain kinship through liking many of the namechecked bands and I’ve a deep familiarity of the M62 motorway between Liverpool and Hull.)

And the West by West Midlands bit?

So, I’ve been wondering – and these are questions I opened up to others at WxWM – what would life experiences look like when visualised geographically, say using social tools?

How can we geographically tag life experiences yet also give each small record of experience some kind of emotional measure?

A band you saw live for the first time; a blossomed friendship; meeting someone who you’ll spend the rest of your life with; the first time you walk on to the terrace at a football stadium and see the pitch; a holiday; a book you read that helped you see the world differently; any goal by Eric Cantona (might just be me, that one).

Could an amassed archive of your life’s experiences, both the transformative events and the trivial, tagged with location and some indicator of emotional attachment actually become an autobiography?

More on psychogeography

Jon Bounds took the discussion further after the talk. Check out his post on conversational psychogeography — mapping real life with the social web.

There’s some interesting work at Mapping the Lakes, a collaborative and explorative research project testing whether Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology can be used to further the understanding of the literature of place and space.

Other presenters at West by West Midlands 2

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