Extract from Speed, Chris, Maureen Thomas & Chris Barker, 2015. ‘Ghost Cinema App: Temporal Ubiquity and the Condition of Being in Everytime’, in Penz & Koeck (ed). Cinematic Urban Geographies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Ghost Cinema

Interested in practising how a conceptual model of temporal ubiquity might be manifested in a heritage-focused experience, the authors contributed to the development of the Ghost Cinema software application. GhostCinema was developed for the Apple iPhone during 2013, for the AHRC-funded project: Cinematic Geographies of Battersea, Urban Interface and Site-Specific Spatial Knowledge, by the Universities of Cambridge, Liverpool and Edinburgh, in partnership with the Survey of London at English Heritage. The GhostCinema app exploits temporal ubiquity by recovering historical cinematic media as users walk into locations across Battersea, London and share this data through their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts across the network. 


The application was developed as an exploration of how a sense of temporal ubiquity might be constructed through the use of historical cinematic material, as it becomes re-associated with the urban context of Battersea. Battersea has been home to at least 27 documented cinemas, as well as being the site of over 600 films shot in and around this residential inner-city district of south London. The application uses GPS technology to locate where the user of the app is, and correlate this with digital media associated with that place. The experience of receiving historical footage, whilst standing in the place where it was shot on camera or shown in a cinema, as well as the use of social networks to share these experiences, forms a ‘transformative recognition’ of how Battersea has changed through time.


The central ‘ghost cinema’ experience is triggered as you pass a Battersea ghost-cinema ‘hotspot’, where a cinema used to be.  Your phone receives an alert - a greeting from the ghost commissionaire or usherette of that particular picture-house - e.g.: “Hello, I’m Tim, former commissionaire at the Electric Pavilion (1916 –1944), now Asda Supermarket.  Like my old cinema, I’m a ghost.”


When you look at your screen, a photo of the building you are passing, as it is today, dissolves into an image of the cinema or picture-palace that once stood there. In text (though hopefully, beyond the life of the pilot, eventually in audio), the Ghost of the Cinema Commissionaire welcomes you, offering a brief note of the cinema’s history – e.g. “Welcome to Ghost Cinema Battersea Electric Pavilion Picture Palace. Once Battersea had 27 cinemas – now they are all ghosts.”


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Fig 3. Screen-captures from the GhostCinema iPhone application. Upon arriving at the GPS coordinates/Geofence of a former Cinema, the Commissionaire invites you to view clips from films shot in locations nearby.


The Ghost Commissionaire invites you to view a range of clips from films shot on nearby locations (between 1914-2014). These 2-3 minute clips have been edited to give a specific local perspective, with voice-over commentary on architectural and social as well as cinematic history and narrative - picking up and detailing the topics addressed in the geolocated audio micro-chapters. Movie titles and credits are included in all clips, so when you are in a suitably tranquil location, you can, if you wish, follow links, for more information or to order or play the whole movie at your leisure.


The locations of ghost cinema hotspots are also tweeted – e.g. “I just met the ghost usherette of the New Grand Essoldo Cinema (1827-1963) outside The Grand, Clapham. She shows films shot in Battersea”, or “I just met the ghost commissionaire of the lost Imperial Ruby Cinema (1914-1981) outside Barclays Bank. He shows films shot in Battersea”.


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Fig 4. The former Imperial/Ruby Picture Palace (1914-1981), now Barclays Bank

(2015), 7-11 St John's Hill, Battersea. ©English Heritage and ©Matthew Flintham.


GhostCinema aimed to create a unique, enjoyable and stimulating experience, using locative digital media to connect people with carefully-researched historical and cultural information about the local Battersea area, collected and archived over five years by the Survey of London - opening this scholarly archive to the general public in an up-to-date and engaging way.  But though a digital guide which includes the display of movie clips related to your location is compelling, CGB recognised that gluing your eyes to the screen of your mobile phone or tablet while you walk along the street, is not the best way to enjoy the city, or the history of its architecture, cinemas and films.


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Fig 5. Screen-captures from the GhostCinema iPhone application. The map view allows users to see where Ghost Cinemas are located. When users enter a geofence and view material the app uses their Facebook and Twitter accounts to enter the contemporary streams of content in social media networks.


No cinemas exist today in Battersea, but the Survey of London contains historical material, images and records of twenty-seven local Picture Palaces and Cinemas which have risen and fallen since the nineteenth century. GhostCinema was devised to be an easily-operated mobile locative app, which gives access to a ‘light’ set of information, in audio format, about the area, and then, at the ghost cinema hotspots, offers access to clips from movies made in Battersea, with commentary providing narrative, historical, location and architectural information.  A more detailed set of archived visual material (stills and moving images), text and additional audio can be accessed via the Cinematic Geographies of Battersea Website, to which the app directs you.


Technically, GhostCinema organises its information round nodes – the ghost cinemas of Battersea - which are display-points for clips from movies related to the local area. These give a human dimension to the Survey of London’s archive material, which represents, here in audio form, the history of the city’s architecture.


The app uses geofencing to create trigger zones throughout the area, where audio micro-chapters, edited for the general listener from the scholarly Survey of London text, offer information about the location, automatically playing out as visitors running the app pass through a trigger zone. You can enjoy this seamless audio commentary through earbuds or headphones as you move from trigger-zone to trigger-zone (each c. 25 metres in diameter), and look around the physical place, with your phone in your pocket. There are three or four micro-chapters per trigger-zone, and these shuffle, so, as you pass through each zone - and at a larger scale the whole Battersea location where the App is geolocated (see map Fig 5) - you hear a constantly-reconfiguring stream of audio commentary, which for each visit composes a coherent but ever-changing story. The randomised shuffling of the associatively-written micro-chapters means that however often you visit Battersea, you will always hear a seamless narrative which sounds new to you - either because you have never heard some (or all) of the micro-chapters before; or, even if you have heard them, because they reconfigure their order to create fresh combinations each time. You can enjoy the app again and again, without a sense of mechanical repetition.


The overall theme connecting the micro-chapters is the local history of entertainment, with particular emphasis on cinema. Around this theme are clustered short 30-second – 2-minute audio micro-chapters about the architecture (both domestic and public), the history of local commerce, industry and occupations, and the development and inhabitation of the whole area. For example:


Microchapter ‘Clapham Junction Cinemas’: In the space of 18 months, at the beginning of the twentieth century, three purpose-built cinemas arrived within half a mile of Clapham Junction. The Electric Pavilion, usually known as the Pavilion, opened in 1916 on the site of Gray’s Fairground, at 222 Lavender Hill, now the site of the Asda supermarket.


Microchapter ‘Electric Pavilion’: Along with all public entertainment venues, the Pavilion cinema closed in the Autumn of 1939, at the beginning of the second World War, reopening in 1941- only to be largely destroyed by a bomb that fell nearby on Lavender Hill, at lunchtime on the twenty-ninth of August 1944. Luckily, the cinema was not open for business at this time of day, so only 28 people died.


The innovative relationship between locative media experience and the website is implemented through its spatially-organised structure and interface.  These build on a new way of thinking about access, which invites users with different levels of interest to enter the app in 3 different modes. In ROAM Mode, through the geofenced trigger-zones, the reconfiguring, shuffled audio-commentary plays automatically and seamlessly as you move around the whole area covered by the app (6km2). When the App alerts you to the position of a ghost cinema as you pass one, you can switch to EXPLORE Mode, where you can view historical stills connected with the audio micro-chapters, as well as watch movie-clips at the ghost-cinema nodal hotspots themselves. RESEARCH Mode directs you to the Cinematic Geographies of Battersea (CGB) Website, where you can navigate the complete archive of film-titles and movie-information, and the complete Survey of London text relating to the local area, as well as links to other relevant material. These archives are accessed through a map-interface, which corresponds to the geofenced trigger-zones where the audio-commentary micro-chapters are located in the physical cityscape of Battersea.  Through this spatially organised interface, the Website offers easy access to all the results of the scholarly research carried out for the CGB project http://cinematicbattersea.org/.  Past and present become simultaneous, as the ghosts of the one inform the other, using digital audiovisual media (Fig 6.).


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Fig 6. The former Junction Picture House (1910 -1917), now Natural Remedies

(2015), 311 Lavender Hill, Battersea. ©English Heritage and ©Matthew Flintham.


See: Penz, François. 2012. 'Museums as Laboratories of Change - the Case for the Moving Image' pp 278-300 in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed) Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomas, Maureen, Selsjord, Marianne and Zimmer, Robert. 2011. 'Museum or Mausoleum? Electronic Shock Therapy' pp 10 - 35 in Miltiadis Lytras, Ernesto Damiani, Lily Diaz & Patricia Ordonez De Pablos (eds.) Digital Culture and E-Tourism: Technologies, Applications and Management. Hershey, Pennsylvania:IGI Global.