Research

Looking Backwards, Looking Forward

As we experiment with and explore ambient literature as part of our project, we remind ourselves that what we are doing is not new. Countless writers, artists, and technologists have imagined and created digital works that respond to place to tell stories. As we examine these early roots of what we are calling ambient literature, we find that they are not definitive. We come across works in adjacent fields, in visual arts, geography, and oral history, that feel as though they are trying to experiment with technology, place, and story in similar ways. Here are just a few works from that might be considered early precursors to some of the ideas we are exploring today and might shape what comes next [murmur] (2002) was an archival audio project developed by a Toronto-based collective to record stories and memories told by people about specific geographical locations. The stories were mapped onto the urban…

Responding to Your Presence

Consider several apparently unrelated points of reference: On November 19th 1942, in the small Polish town of Drohobych, a man (amongst 230 others that Black Thursday) was shot on the street by an SS officer called Karl Günther. 1 Bruno Schulz was a writer, and left behind two volumes of extraordinary short stories, volumes of letters, drawings and paintings, and a novel that no-one on earth has ever read. Schulz was an adept of a technique of writing coined mytho-poesis, a poetic interpretation of life and its events through symbol, metaphor and allegory. His short fiction (collected as The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass) are replete with symbolic figures, recurring characters and successive scenarios that taken together, build a world in which Schulz’ readers take a kind of refuge. His admirers include Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer, The Brothers Quay, and me. Writing is, I think, a…

Ambience & Eco Critical Awareness

After the launch of Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then in the Spring, we fell into a conversation about how, without aiming to, he had produced a work that seemed to speak to the idea of the anthropocene. Previously this had seemed to me a theoretical field full of problematic challenges, but the practice-based process has opened it up to me as an accessible and important way of framing the work of ambient lit. One of the features of ambient lit as we are experimenting with it has been to shift users’ attention between text and world, between present and past, and between presence and absence. Kate’s post about ghosts suggests some of this shape shifting. But Duncan & I, in a piece we’re working on for the new journal Media Theory, have been thinking about this in terms of modes of attention. Maybe these temporal and…

Session Promise

This blog will take approximately 2.5 minutes to read. At the recent FutureBook conference in London, The Bookseller’s annual book publishing and innovation jamboree, games consultant and writer Nicholas Lovell talked about a core idea behind the way content across all forms is delivered to us these days: the “session promise.” By this he means both the length of time the work requires of us to view, read, or play at any single sitting — the tv drama episode, the game level, the podcast serial — as well as the bargain we make with ourselves as we sit down to view: “I’ll just watch one episode of ‘Stranger Things 2.’” With the print book the session promise is so well established that it’s as invisible to readers as the printer’s rectangles Ian Gadd focuses on so elegantly in his most recent Ambient Literature blog. While I was not able to…

The Printer’s Eye

What do readers see? For most of the past half millennia, the answer has been straightforward: readers see rectangles, both visible and invisible. From the obvious orthogonality of the codex, the page-opening, and of course the page itself to the unseen boxes that frame the printed letters and lines, rectangularity is fundamental to our concept of the book as an object. Of course, rectangularity isn’t peculiar to print: manuscript books were rectangular too as is much of the man-made world, from bricks to beds, from doors to windows, from bank-cards to laptops. But the rectangle is integral to print because, for centuries, every page, every line, every word was made up of small rectangular pieces of type. These bookish rectangles are rarely considered by readers—apart, perhaps, when we are packing books in boxes or shelving them in bookcases—but they shape our reading practices. Our expectations about textual orientation, about where…

Global Connections, Common Cultures

This British Airways ad campaign from a few years ago presented digital images of children that were designed so that it appeared that they were noticing and pointing to real life airplanes as they passed over the billboard. Viewed from the right angle, the custom “surveillance technology” (probably relying in part on ordinary flight schedule data) that BA’s advertising company employed was able to mimic a child delight at something passing in the sky overhead. While they’re not “literature” (at least by most definitions, though maybe Lew Welch would disagree), these ads nevertheless showcase the kinds of evocative possibilities that are enabled by using data flows and sensor networks. Of course, what remains central to these, no matter the technologies involved, is the way in which they tap into existing cultural forms and practices (billboards, the image of childhood delight, the way that planes fly overhead) in order to create…

Peeling Back the Layers

I experience our second work of ambient literature, The Cartographer’s Confession by James Attlee, on a busy Saturday afternoon by the Tate Modern on London’s South Bank. Around me, crowds gather around street performers, who are spray painted silver and contorted into impossible-looking positions, a long queue leads a neon pink ice cream van and a group of teenagers perform a choreographed dance routine in front of the river. Among all this activity, I sit by myself on a bench, put in my headphones, and begin the app downloaded onto my phone. I am soon transported to 1945 and a crackling audio recording recounts the arrival of Thomas and his mother, Ellen, to London on a ship loaded with timber. As I am given fragmented details about the characters, they flicker as though not yet in focus. I am here, sitting on this ordinary bench, but another story is emerging. I begin to…

“Entanglement”

“Entanglement” is probably my favourite theoretical term at the moment. I write and teach, most frequently, about humans and their artefacts, about the ways in which we become entangled with our tools, and my sense of the intensity of that idea has deepened as I’ve explored it in work from philosophy, cognitive science, sociology, critical theory, anthropology, and archaeology. To be entangled doesn’t just mean that we use things a lot, and it doesn’t mean, just, that we’re shaped by the things that we use. To be entangled is to recognise that the flow of agency moves both ways – we alter our tools as our tools alter us; we domesticate one another. We see these kinds of entanglements in nature all the time, with parasites, symbionts, and predator-prey relationships. In my book, I draw on the work of Henry Plotkin and his example of the stick insect, a creature…

In Process

The work I’m creating for this project is a ghost story. Even while I type this piece, the boundaries of the story are shifting and changing as the design and development teams and I negotiate our way forward toward the finished product which, to me, is proving as elusive and mysterious as a ghost itself might be. The dead are all around us — those we never met, those we’ve lost, those we mourn. Earlier this week I attended a family funeral. We saw her off in a willow casket at the plain municipal crematorium and, later, we gathered together in her church, a 17th century stone chapel and bell tower on a hill in Sussex. In that building, the dead are all around — their names carved into stone plaques and memorials, their portraits on the walls, their bodies buried in the tombs and grassy graves outside. The church…

I See a Darkness

And many times we’ve shared our thoughts But did you ever, ever notice The kind of thoughts I got (1) Ambient Literature launched the second of our commissions this week in London. The Cartographer’s Confession, written by James Attlee, is a very different piece of Ambient Literature when considered alongside It Must Have Been Dark By Then, which for a research project interested in consolidating forms for writing, and exploring what might be possible in this space we’re defining, is a positive thing. If I was to make a very broad comparison, then Duncan Speakman’s work addresses the Ambient in our title, while The Cartographer’s Confession has ambitions toward the Literary (2). James was kind enough to agree to an “in-conversation” discussion with the journalist Thomas McMullan during the launch event. We’ll post the audio of that discussion soon, but the richness of that dialogue made me think about the kind…

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