Introducing the next generation of ambient literature

Introducing the next generation of ambient literature

Far away from the sturm und drang of the publishing industry - the boardrooms of the Big Five and their colossal outrider, Amazon - a quiet revolution is taking place.

It’s a revolution of form and content with many shapes and names and an increasing number of readers. In one corner a new genre calling itself ‘Ambient Literature’ is emerging: situated literary experiences delivered by pervasive computing platforms that respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story. This could include writing in, of, and through the city, delivered via smartphones, performance, or perhaps installation, using text, audio, and/or video to find new ways to tell stories. 

When a group of innovators based at the Pervasive Media (PM) Studio in Bristol was nearing the end of REACT, a four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project that finished earlier in 2016, they took a look at the highly successful literary experiments they had conducted during the Books & Print Sandbox phase of the project and asked themselves, ‘What next?’

These experiments included Writer on the Train, which used GPS to deliver stories that responded to time and location to the smartphones of passengers on the Bristol to London mainline train and ‘these pages fall like ash’ which told a story across two ‘books’, one bound inside a wooden case, the other a series of digital texts hidden in hard drives across the city, each story augmenting the other.

These projects led the interdisciplinary team, headed up by Professor Jon Dovey of the University of the West of England (one of the main partners in the PM Studio), to think hard about the relationship between text, book, digital platform and the reader. They felt some of the most interesting projects that arose out of the Books & Print Sandbox were those that also interrogated the relationship between story and the urban landscape, using technology to place the reader inside the story. 

At the same time, I had continued to develop my own practice as a novelist and digital writer with projects like Inanimate Alice, whose most recent episode, 'Episode Six: The Last Gas Station' won Honourable Mention for the Robert Coover Prize in early June this year and the digital war memorial Letter to an Unknown Soldier, for which nearly 22,000 people wrote letters to the unknown soldier to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WW1.

I’d gone from being a freelancer to working for Bath Spa University and I had my eye on the PM Studio just one more stop down the train line as a centre for all things digital and experimental; the first time I visited I met a man who had figured out a way to send love letters to the moon. So when Jon asked if I’d be interested in coming on board for a new research project that took what they’d learned from REACT in order to think further about what shape future books might take, I tried, and probably failed, not to look too over-excited. 

A research grant application was written (an enormous task for which Jon shouldered most of the burden), an interdisciplinary team of scholars was assembled across UWE, Bath Spa, the University of Birmingham. The writer James Attlee (Isolarion, Nocturne and Station to Station, as well as author on the Writer on the Train project), the writer-artist Duncan Speakman (as a director of the artists’ collective Circumstance, Speakman creates ‘books that go beyond the page’ including ‘these pages fall like ash’) and our technical team, the developers Calvium, were brought on board.

Over the next two years the academic team, headed up by Jon Dovey and researcher and artist Tom Abba, will take a scholarly look at the field, scoping the potential for ‘ambient literature’. 

Dovey says, "We are close to having the tech that could write stories into the wireless fabric of the city. Any restaurant, bus station or pop-up could offer stories set in their spaces to wi-fi users: the world can become our stage. This project is about learning how to write for these new settings." 

Abba adds, "We want to develop rules for academic writing in this space; challenging some of the orthodox thinking about the way scholarly books are written and received."

Atlee, Speakman, and myself will create three new works. Speakman will explore ‘the idea of temporal waypoints, how narrative can respond not just to physical sites but to the experiential arc of an audience’s journey over time’. Attlee's piece will be ‘situated in London as physical location, as map, as image and as dream’. I plan to write a ghost story to be experienced in a bedroom in a city – any bedroom, in any city.

Together, we hope to do the kind of research and development work for which publishers simply don’t have the time and resources. We’re looking forward to showing you what we’ve made.