Ambient literature allows us to redefine the role of the reader

Ambient literature allows us to redefine the role of the reader

In January and February this year, the composer Duncan Speakman travelled with collaborators across three countries on three continents, visiting environments that are experiencing rapid change from human and environmental factors. What he created on his return is somewhere between a travel journal and a poetic reflection on connection, progress and memory.

The completed work - It Must Have Been Dark By Then - takes the form of a mobile phone app and a beautifully designed book, both of which guide you through the city you are in, seeking out types of locations in your own environment, offering sounds and stories from remote but related situations. As they traverse their city, each listener/reader is invited to tie those stories to their location, creating a map of where they are right now and of places that may not exist in the future.

It Must Have Been Dark By Then was commissioned by Ambient Literature, a two-year research project that is a collaboration between UWE Bristol, Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham, and is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. The Ambient Literature project brings together expertise on the book and the future of literature delivery to explore the relationship between technology and literature. Drawing on literary studies, creative writing, design, human-computer interaction, performance and digital culture, its research engages with the history of the book to see what that history is able to tell us about its future. 

Ahead of It Must Have Been Dark By Then's London premiere at the British Library next week, Ambient Literature’s co-director, Tom Abba, spoke with Duncan Speakman for Futurebook.

TA. Duncan, what was it about these locations that made them an evocative subject for this project?

DS. I knew I wanted to represent both human and environmental change. Louisiana, for example, has what has many people call the first official climate change refugees; people that were being moved by means of government funding because of rising sea levels. There was also kind of poetry between Tunisia, which is suffering from a lack of water, and Louisiana, which has an overabundance. 

TA. Did you find connections between those sites, between the people you met in each place?

DS. I went with the primary intention of documenting disappearance. What I actually found was a very similar state of human influence on each location. There was also a sense of addressing the ‘other’ in all of those journeys, in that I wanted to move away from what I knew, from what has been a predominantly UK perspective, and embrace what I didn’t know.

TA. How would you describe the reader’s role in the work?

DS. I like that you describe them as a reader. There’s a book involved, of course, but your use of that term is interesting. I wanted each audience member to be an active reader, to stop and engage with sound and physical experience. I suppose that the best way to describe their role is that they activate the piece; it’s the reader that structures the work, temporally and spatially. It Must Have Been Dark By Then was always going to be about the place the reader is in when they experience it, and it’s a very reflective piece in that regard. I love the idea that across each place we’ve taken it there are now these invisible, sculptural works that only exist for each person that has walked the work.

TA. It Must Have Been Dark By Then invokes, especially in the return journey, ideas of the Anthropocene. I wondered whether that was always your intention?

DS. It wasn’t my original intention, but that’s definitely what happened! It’s a mixture of what I experienced and documented that I think creates that mood, that foregrounds those ideas. Now that I can step back and look at what the work does, I agree. I’ve been interested in the some of the ideas that have been proposed by Timothy Morton; hyperobjects for example, which stretch ahead and behind us in time. In this work you’re experiencing and walking through timescales of change that are bigger than the one you’re engaged in as you physically traverse the piece, and sound is able to situate you within something bigger than your immediate understanding. It’s a quality of a shaped, temporal experience, as opposed to a book, which doesn’t have the same temporal frame, that I’m keen to explore.

TA. Do you think there’s more you can do with this form for storytelling?

DS. I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling it storytelling. I struggle with that as a term for this. This work seems to offer the ability to experience the ‘other’, and make that relevant to where we are, where we’re situated when we experience it. I was worried that maybe this subject matter was the only thing that works in this form - mapping locations to the space you’re in - but I think that there are other ways to draw resonances between the remote and the local, and the experience of being present in a space.

TA. And I said I wouldn’t ask this, but can you offer a definition for Ambient Literature?

DS. I think that, for me, ambient literature is a way of thinking, of trying to understand a wider body of existing work, and maybe that will help us think about what new works could be made. I don’t think its useful to think of it as a form of work in itself. The word literature is incredibly loaded, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to think of the three commissions within this research project as ‘literary’. They might be, but each has its own ambition, operates on its own register. Ambient literature, for me personally, is a way of thinking critically about experiential works, and the way we can be situated in a space.

It Must Have Been Dark By Thenruns from the British Library from July 4th - 8th. A conversation amongst all three Ambient Literature authors, Duncan Speakman, Kate Pullinger, and James Attlee, moderated by Tom Abba, takes place on July 5th. Book your place here.