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The Future is Calling in Leimert Park, by Payphone

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Sabeloa Mzizi, who forms part of the tech team, puts the final touches on the raspberry pi, a small device which programs the phone | Photo: Karl Baumann

With rapid changes in our modern lives, the list of obsolete technology is growing, fast: cassette tapes, vcr's, or more recently the equally archaic, ipod shuffle. Except in Leimert Park -- where a group of USC students and media technologists have partnered with local business owners and artists to pave the way of the future, with one of these relics -- the public telephone.

Ben Caldwell conducts field research noting the locations of underused and destroyed phones on Central Avenue, the old centre of Jazz in South L.A. | Photo: Karl Baumann
Ben Caldwell conducts field research noting the locations of underused and destroyed phones on Central Avenue, the old centre of Jazz in South L.A. | Photo: Karl Baumann

They call themselves the Leimert Phone Company. At the cutting edge of remixed technology, transmedia, and community storytelling, the collaborative project seeks to re-imagine the phone booth by re-purposing old payphones to create new forms of civic engagement on local streets. "It's an open source, user-driven concept," said Ben Caldwell, the owner of a business in Leimert Park, called KAOS Network. "We want to use these discarded payphones as portals for community storytelling and to preserve our history."

KAOS is not a traditional business. "It's more like an arts center that provides a space for youth in the community, to express themselves and experiment with creativity through music and visual arts," said Caldwell. "It's home to all things avant-garde." Through KAOS Network, Caldwell pitches ideas to academic institutions, such as The University of Southern California (USC), and collaborates with them to find ways in which to integrate arts practices into the Leimert Park community. "The university is so close to Leimert Park in terms of proximity, so there is an obvious connection there, a natural marriage," he said.

It was at a music jam session held at KAOS Network in 2011, when Caldwell met USC professor François Bar. "I had this idea brewing about a public phone that sat outside KAOS, and I took it to François," said Caldwell. "My 'ah-ha' moment was when I looked at this abandoned phone, and thought, there's a phone and there's electricity, what can we do with this?

"I initially wanted to use it to provide free Wi-Fi to people passing by. So I approached USC with that concept, I wanted my ideas to be scrutinized and from there we started looking at other innovative ways that we could use this piece of public property to better the community," said Caldwell.

Bar introduced USC Ph.D students Ben Stokes and Karl Baumann to the project, and together they purchased 12 old pay phones, from an investment company in Santa Ana, still intact with $208 in coins, scratch lottery tickets, two metal slugs, and a token in the coin box bellies of the discarded phones. With the bulky booths providing visual inspiration, the team brought together a group of 30 USC students and faculty, who began working with local Leimert Park community members, artists, and musicians in early 2012. "We initially held workshops over 5 weeks, structured around brainstorming and rapid-prototyping different concepts for possible designs," said Baumann.

Francois Bar welds new stands for the second-hand public phones | Photo: Benjamin Stokes
Francois Bar welds new stands for the second-hand public phones | Photo: Benjamin Stokes
Ben Caldwell sits among USC students during a brainstorming session at KAOS network.  USC students, faculty, technologists, media-makers, local artists and musicians formed design groups to generate strategies and goals for re-designing the phones | Photo: Karl Baumann

The teams started dreaming up storytelling possibilities for these old artifacts, such as picking up the receiver and listening to voice prompts that would offer music downloads from homegrown artists; information on local art exhibitions; or short audio recordings that told the history of Leimert Park. Meanwhile, media technologists began "'hacking" the phone, experimenting with ways in which the device could be programmed to record sound or create its own wireless network.

"Eventually we'd like it to do all kinds of things, like voiceover IP phone calls and internet hotspots," said Andrew Schrock, a member of the tech team, who has been using a device the size of a credit card to program the phone. "We're using something called a Raspberry Pi, which is a small computer that has an ARM processor, runs Linux, and costs about $35. It's useful for embedding in a payphone for several reasons: it's cheap, flexible, and has an interface that can detect and send voltage changes."

While Schrock tackles the electronics, Wesley Groves is tasked with routing power to the charging stations, "I'm using an ordinary, low cost AC electrical outlet that allows people to charge their cellphones using the public device. The outlet is encased in flexible plastic tubing, that will allow users to plug in phone chargers, or USBs ... we're trying to figure out the best way to make power available to people using inexpensive parts, and something that looks interesting," he said.

The redesigned, prototype phone, almost complete prior to its launch on November 30 at Kaos Network | Photo: Karl Baumann
The redesigned, prototype phone, almost complete prior to its launch on November 30 at Kaos Network | Photo: Karl Baumann

The phone prototype is painted postbox red; an LCD screen is bolted to the roof of the booth, along with a submarine-like tube that arches overhead and holds a large, round speaker. "I think we're on that verge, the convergence of art and technology, and they go hand in hand," said Rudy Rude, a visual artist who is tasked with envisioning the look of the phone.

"I see this as a 'pimp my ride' kind of project, where we can all have our own version [of the phone]. There may be a whole different way that other people see it, and that can be harnessed, but they can use this idea and implement it in their own way, that's the beauty of it," said Caldwell.

Caldwell believes this project is particularly important in a community such as Leimert Park. "It's important for the community to leave core stories about themselves behind," he said. "Leimert Park, from the beginning, has been central to all aspects of L.A. It's the heart of African American culture in the city because of the flavors, fabrics, textures, and colors that emerge from it; it's an influential hub."

The launch for the prototype is set for November 30. The public is invited to Leimert Park to pick up the phone and listen to intimate stories about the history and culture of the area. "Additionally, participants will be able to record their own stories, experiences, and anecdotes into the phone, adding to the archive and making a depository of memories," said Baumann. "We hope to have a permanent installation in January 2014," he said.

The Future is Calling in Leimert Park, by Payphone

Find out more about Leimert Phone Company through their website:

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