Tales of Toronto

An innovative project uses cell phones to tell the hidden stories of the city

| November / December 2004

Do you sigh when you see the apartment where you had your first threesome? Is there a park you can't pass without thinking of the dog you loved and lost? Is the city map covered with the stories of your life? Stories don't just live in our books and imaginations, they belong to the buildings and homes where they take place. Stories can haunt these places like ghosts, can bring a city's architecture to life. If walls could talk, they'd have a lot to say; a project called [murmur] has given them a voice.

Shawn Micallef, Gabe Sawhney, and James Roussel are [murmur]. They met at the Habitat New Media Lab at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in the summer of 2002 and started [murmur] as a way of letting Toronto's vivid oral history articulate itself. They collect real stories from real people and archive them for anyone to hear. Pedestrian with cell phones can call the phone number listed on a sign posted outside a place that has a story and hear the story that took place where they're standing, while they're standing there. And hear it told in the voice of the person who lived it. This democratic approach 'breaks down the hegemonic 'official' history of Toronto . . . and offers countless alternative histories,' says Micallef. The pilot project for [murmur] focuses on Toronto's vibrant, multiethnic Kensington Market, where craft stores and ethnic restaurants crowd together in a rich mix. 'We decided to launch the project in Kensington because it's a microcosm of Toronto: Layers of the city are visible there, from the Victorian infrastructure to the brand-new immigrant population. People are really attached to it,' explains Micallef.

Why cell phones, and why pedestrians? While the boys of [murmur] admit that cell phones may come across as a rather elitist interface, they insist that they are the easiest to use, the most appropriate, and the most intimate way to dole out stories. The stories are told to pedestrians because one of the aims of this project is to get people reacquainted with their cities, at street level. 'The city moves at the speed of walking,' says Micallef. 'Hearing a story in the space where it happened lets you feel the story and reconcile it with what you see and feel around you.'

Installations in Montreal and Vancouver were planned for the fall, but the idea would work as well in rural Saskatchewan (find out what's really inside that grain silo), in the wilds of Newfoundland (that antique store used to be Grandpa Percy's hooch distillery), or even in a suburb (one of those cookie-cutter garage doors has got to have scandal behind it). To hear, tell, or learn about [murmur] and its archive of urban mythologies, visit www.murmurtoronto.ca



Adapted from Broken Pencil (#23). Subscriptions: $12/yr. (3 issues) from Box 203, Station P, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2S7, Canada; www.brokenpencil.com