"Well, well, well! You look like man with discerning taste and particular needs. I've got just the lady for you, ready waiting and warm in the alley behind this tavern. Finish up that glass and let me lead you on to ecstasy."
It's not often that I'm propositioned by a prostitute in the middle of a business meeting. It's even more unusual for this to happen in the presence of my wife and son. But this was no ordinary business meeting, this was the launch of Dark Side Port Side, an initiative designed to create a digital poetry trail celebrating the darker aspects of Portsmouth's rich history.
Dark Side Port Side is curated by John Sackett of Big Adventures. John's well known in Portsmouth as a driver and supporter of the arts, working closely with the Arts Council to seed and nurture the local creative scene. In 2017 John was made aware of the Sailortown initiative spearheaded by Brad Beavan at the University of Portsmouth. He saw the potential to expand Sailortown into an audiovisual trail and convinced the Arts Council to help with an element of funding. John's vision was to create an immersive experience guiding users around the darker history of Portsmouth using film and poetry as the markers upon the map.
John challenged us with the development of such an system, taking the work we'd done on Sailortown and expanding it into the audio visual world. Projects like this underpin the reasons why I really really love my job. What could be more exciting than creating an interactive map of miscreants, mysteries and local legends? Here was an opportunity to turn the creative dial up to 11 and see just how dark we could make a digital map.
We began with a theme working from a brief given to us by John.
Dark Side Port Side takes inspiration from Sailortown a site that is based on historic and the darker histories of Portsmouth and specifically Portsea site of Portsmouth.
I’d like a subtlety in how we portray our history, we have modern poets and film-makers going back in time to re-imagine these histories with poetry and film. I'm thinking "time travellers" or a Victorian era which has remnants of the future in it so in the mould of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. Stories from the Victorian era but not as you have quite imagined it !
Think "Steam Punk Horror" – with elements of present and future caught up in the now but I’m keen for the images to be more subtle.
So much to work with! Duncan, our designer, scribbled furiously across whiteboards and flip charts sketching out all sorts of weird and wonderful images and monstrosities. Eventually he arrived at the octopus, a creature that symbolises everything weird and wonderful within nature. A creature that is seemingly out of place in our oceans possibly spawned from another galaxy or age. Yet the octopus beguiles and beckons as much as it frightens, the perfect icon to lead users into the darker history of Portsmouth. Inspiration had arrived and the rest of the Dark Side theme quickly fell into place.
Duncan's theme needed a complimentary map that gave the user just enough information to find their way around whilst not detracting from the Dark Side experience. This would be tricky to achieve with a proprietary map layer where we have little or no control around the render. So we decided to roll our own using vector tiles. I've written about these before here so won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say that we took the Zoomstack tileset created by Ordnance Survey and augmented them with our own Dark Side theme.
This was done using MapBox Studio which allowed Duncan the freedom to experiment and tinker without having any of our developers involved. Hurrah! We had our theme and were ready to move on to the next challenge that John had placed in front of us, proximity triggers.
Dark Side Port Side is designed primarily as a mobile experience. The idea being that the user is out on the street viewing the imagery and listening to the associated poetry in-situ. We needed to ensure that our users are in the right place and looking at the right content and to do this we take advantage of the phone's reported location. We added a new function to our client side toolkit that brings up content when the user's device reports they are within a defined area or proximity to a point location. This caused a whole load of wear on our carpet stairs as our developers tested the feature by leaving the office and traipsing around the local streets staring at their phones.
Finally we integrated video and audio. This is not as easy as it sounds as different devices support different formats and capabilities for video playing. We took the decision to integrate a set of video hosting providers rather than self-host as they have solved the majority of these device level problems and also have streaming infrastructure that makes video on mobile devices a better experience in areas of low signal.
Within a month we had Dark Side Port Side up and running ready for content to be provided. And this is where the project gets properly exciting. John faces a community of artistic types, some are film makers and some are poets. Film maker-poets are a rare breed and thus John needed to introduce each to the other and form collaborations to create the content that Dark Side requires. This happened last Saturday at a raucous event held in The Loft a perfect location for the recruitment of the macabre with its dark/dingy interior. John had assembled a diverse crowd of local performers, poets and budding Alfred Hitchcocks with the mission of introducing them to his vision and also each other.
John had also thought through a few ice breakers. Actors playing nautical figures, musicians playing sea shanties and the odd fake prostitute navigating the crowd and plying her trade. You now know that I was her first victim.
The event was a roaring success. It was great to be in a room packed full of artists who immediately bought into the idea of John's poetry trail. We sang along to sea shanties, put on our best pirate voices and enjoyed the films and poems that had already been prepared. I was asked to talk a bit about the technology but abandoned any sense of decorum to fit in with the event as you can see from the following video.
To showcase our app I'd written a poem of my own and recorded a short film of my wife traversing some stairs close to our home. You can see it embedded in the page below and also get a feel for the theme and operation of our Dark Side Port Side app.
Now we wait for the real content. The poets and directors are now introduced and know what they have to do. John's seeking 14 films to add to the trail and I'm confident he'll have no shortage of content. One young lady approached the mike and appealed directly for a poet to come forth. "Anything to do with death.....I like death" she said with a glint in her eye. Underwriting the fact that John had definitely attracted the right audience to his launch.
Dark Side Port Side are keen to hear from any creatives in the Portsmouth area willing to make a short poetry film that fits with the project's theme. For more details contact John Sacket at Big Adventures
In the meantime I'll leave you with this thought. We work with many organisations keen to engage the public in discussion and debate. This is often presented in a very dry manner focused upon the task in hand. Could we drive up engagement and involve new demographics by using sites such as Dark Side Port Side to get people looking and then ask them another question? Who's brave enough to work with us and see what we can do?