Let the mice guide you: “Invisible Histories”

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While most smartphone apps seek to draw the user’s attention to a virtual space, “Invisible Histories”, a new app from a Brock professor attempts to help users connect and become increasingly aware of their immediate environment, as well as a national and international footprint.

Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts, Donna Szoke’s geo-locative app was released to the iTunes App Store in late 2014, and is centred in leading users to the burial ground of 280,000 radioactive rodent corpses. These mice had become radiated during trials for the Manhattan Project in the second World War and were since dumped at the Niagara Falls Storage Site (NFSS) unbeknownst to most locals. The NFSS is a dumping ground for radioactive material, last used for that specific purpose in 1952. The site is located outside of Lewiston, New York, a mere 27 km away from the Brock University.

“I started looking online and eventually found a present and historical map,” said Szoke in an interview. “I was able to find out the exact location with a longitude and latitude, that was a key point to be able to say exactly where it existed.”

The app is minimalist and purposefully simple in its design: on-screen are green, glowing mice that scurry across the screen in a top-down perspective. Through the use of an embedded GPS location and the devices’ accelerometer, the on-screen mice scurry in the direction of their real-world mass disposal site, with more mice appearing on screen the closer you are to the site.

“I was invited by some University of Buffalo professor to do a collaboration with her students. I brought myself and some VISA students, we decided since we were on both sides of the boarder that NF would be our common ground,” said Szoke. “When I discovered this story I was shocked.”

The relative ignorance of a history of animal abuse and environmental devastation of this magnitude is disturbing, and the app forces users to question and interrogate landscapes they assume are benign.

“We just don’t have the private luxury of being an individual consumer,” remarked Professor Szoke. “We have the private responsibility of being a citizen. It means quite simply that we are aware of the public space. When I first heard about the NFSS, I couldn’t believe how few people heard about something so close to their neighbourhood. These histories represent the gnawing away of our social sphere.”

The app was adapted originally from a video installation of the same name which Szoke presented on Oct. 5, 2012 at Whispers and Rages, a Can- Am Exhibition. Coding and creating this poignant idea into a usable mobile application inevitably ensures a new install base as well as a new artistic dynamic beyond spectator and artist.

“I like working with new technologies, I think it’s interesting for art. Technology and art each tell us unique things about our time and space. It’s amazing that the smart phone is such a personal space that can also be transformed into an artistic space. As comfortable as an art gallery is,” said Szoke, “it’s still a public space. [“Invisible Histories”] is an art experience in a different context.”

After releasing the initial iOS compatible version of “Invisible Histories” to generally positive responses, the development of the Android compatible version of the app is nearing completion, with plans to develop a Windows version in the future.

“Invisible Histories” is a free download currently available from the iTunes App Store for the iPhone and iPad.

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