TrailOff: Creating New Narratives of Nature

Adrienne Mackey

This talk gives an overview of Swim Pony’s project TRAILOFF – a transmedial walking performance created in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) aimed at getting new and diverse users out onto the region’s trails and changing the stories we associate with them. Through a free-to-download mobile app users experience original audio stories that unfold over a roughly 2 mile route, written by a local author who demonstrates both rigorous artistic practice and connections to communities traditionally underserved by environmental programming. Audiences will experience these intimate journeys through the app, which uses GPS triggering to link narration and soundscore to physical attributes along the mapped route.

9 replies on “TrailOff: Creating New Narratives of Nature”

TrailOff was created based on an assumption that environmental stewardship requires a personal connection to the natural resources one takes part in protecting. This work aims at getting people to feel themselves personally reflected in the landscapes around them. One critique they’ve heard is that investing in art projects like this are too circuitous a route to getting direct action. What do you think about using alternative methods like these to get audiences more involved in issues like land protection, water quality and stewardship?

I can’t wait to get out on the trails and Trail Off! Two questions/comments:
+ In your pre-recorded talk, “nature” is doing a lot of work. Is that a helpful construct when trying explicitly to reach audiences/participants who historically and today are not always welcomed in “natural” spaces.
+ A related question: How do these richly developed AR trail experiences help re-cast participants’ ideas about “nature” and the natural world?

I’m interested to hear more about what you mean by “doing a lot of work.” The stories are definitely in conversation with nature, but I’d posit that actually the writers are really highlighting these kinds of spaces in ways that change the “work” they do. For example, in Carmen Maria Machado’s story, the Manayunk Toepath becomes a site of a crytozoology mystery, changing the emphasis on solely walking for pleasure (which I agree is not how everyone experiences nature, haha) into a kind of experiential haunted house. The aim, for me, is really to cast nature in new stories that allow us to let them work differently, perhaps, if that makes sense.

In terms of the second question, it’s really about placing stories that shift our assumptions about narrative. In one out on the Chester Valley Trail, author ari (a trans Latinix 20 year old), writes a story about a main character very similar to themselves. Luz begins the story with a car crash. She dies and is greeted on the trail by Dog (aka Xolotl, aka the Aztec god of Death) and walks towards the afterlife following the trail’s path, meeting several other of the Tzecalipoca gods along the way. This trail is one ari grew up on so it was exciting to see them write something that both came from personal experience but also was NOT a story I, for one, would ever have thought of in regards to a suburban nature trail. 🙂

The question that the end of your presentation left me with: could Trail Off! realize the vision of storied/narrated super-local walks without a phone, without an app? Could it have taken the form of a guidebook instead, and what would have been gained and lost?

I think it could have done that, for sure, and I think there are examples of projects that do a more analog version of what we’ve created. The app was partly to acknowledge that many audiences who aren’t connected to natural spaces are living extremely digitally blended lives. Rather than saying they can’t use that integral tech in these spaces, how do we use them as a bridge to invite folks in!

Thank you for sharing these incredibly collaborative projects! I’m looking forward to learning more on your website.

Adrienne, I found this project especially generative for our work in Oregon. One of my own scholarly practices, in environmental history, is reading landscapes, to discover the human history embedded in seemingly natural landscapes and vice versa. I hadn’t quite thought of a project like this, but am intrigued to think about developing something similar in the future. So a couple of quick technical questions: Did you need programmers to develop the app, or are there platforms for creating something similar? And can you also make use of the phone screen (realizing that you really want people to look at the landscape around them) to show historical maps, photos, and the like? Or is this purely audio and spatial? Anyway, it really got me to thinking, so thank you!

Hi Marsha,

Yes! We worked very closely with a developer to build this app as we had very specific things we wanted it to functionally do. The project really began from the collaboration between my company, the developer and the PA Environmental Council in partnership. I didn’t know of any platform that did the specific combo of things I was looking for, which was why I wanted to build something from scratch. In terms of the screen, we definitely could have done more with the visual interface, and there are projects out there that take great advantage of this. I was very interested in NOT incentivizing people to look at their phones and to focus attention on the space directly, which is why we went the route of making the visuals in the app during the sound walks very very simple. We do have an interface with bonus content that unlocks after the walk and there is some historical info and links to local history in that part of the app.