Moving Stories

"I wanted to tell you something, maybe a story. I want it to be about you. I want it to be about where you are."

As we near the end of REACT, we wanted to take the time to share some stories from members of our network. First in our series is a look in on how some of our Books & Print Sandbox projects are getting on, with some exciting news about a new Literature project funded by the AHRC to investigate a new literary genre, in which pervasive technology delivers story and experience‚Äč.

Moving Stories

Artists and writers are exploring how new location-aware technologies – from mobile telephones and GPS to portable wi-fi devices – can be used to create a different kind of story.

Whether a solitary or group activity, experiencing these stories is all about where you are, with pieces of a story being delivered to your mobile device when you reach a particular place, or having an audio track playing through headphones change depending on where you go next, or a narrative that alters depending on who you interact with out in the street.

One writer experimenting with this form is James Attlee, author and Great Western Railway’s ‘Writer on the Train’. Working with software company Agant he developed Writer on the Train, a prototype app that delivered fragments of stories to commuters depending on their location on the Bristol to London line.

“By discovering stories linked to locations along the line and delivering them to readers as they arrived at the exact spot where something had happened in the past, or the viewpoint from which a particular landmark could be viewed, I hoped to reanimate their journey and invest it with interest and meaning” says Attlee. “The readership I wanted to reach was made up primarily of repeat travellers, those able to enter a serial relationship with a text that could unfold over a period of weeks. At the same time I wanted to explore the phenomenon of train travel itself.”

Playing with how technology can be used to challenge our experience of time and location is also of interest to Alex Butterworth, an artist, author and theorist of new media narrative. “For me, the most exciting affordances with which to work are the temporal: whether it’s the time of a held breath, the attention patterns of the daily and weekly routine, for a commuter or leisure walker, or the few seconds of difference from Greenwich Mean Time between two sides of a city”.

It’s also the ability to create a sense of connection with the world at large for the audience that excites Butterworth, “You’re aiming to generate something like the sense of a whispered or intuited conversation, in which the user feels they are both known and elusive. Whatever the subject or theme of a piece, it should generate a heightened perception, a more fully realized sense of being in the world”.

Artist collective Circumstance agree. Their work frequently operates through ‘subtlemobs’: groups of people connected through shared audio experiences, listening to stories, carrying out instructions and participating in a jointly authored story, while passers-by move obliviously around them.

In a recent work, these pages fall like ash, Circumstance and Tom Abba from UWE Bristol created a story where half the tale was bound in a book and the other half hidden in hard discs in the city. The written text acted, in part, as a treasure map. The rest of the story was read from the hard discs via wi-fi on mobile phones or tablets.

The story changed as the project continued and crucially, when connected to the hard disks, phones weren’t connected to the internet – isolating the reader in the moment of reading and their location.

Circumstance’s Duncan Speakman says, “the devices you use to connect to other parts of the world separate you from your immediate surroundings, and I wanted to use them to force you to connect with where you are.”

These pages fall like ash created a reading experience where those taking part could be directed to look at a landmark, reflect on the city, or their own feelings at that moment, and build those elements into the story being told.

“What was previously a telescope becomes a magnifying glass, and for a moment you could ask the audience to ignore the sky and focus on the dust around their feet. Exactly what will happen inside this frame is unknown, but I can still talk about it, because I know its parameters” wrote Speakman recently.

But as Speakman alludes, it can be challenging writing real life locations into story because even if an author knows where the reader might be, you can’t account for the ever-changing environment of the city or even what the reader will do. “You have to take risks and write around contingencies”, reflects Butterworth, describing his experience with Box of Delights, a mobile digital platform that engaged Oxford audiences with the city's museum collections out in the streets. “Participants responded powerfully to a scene that invoked the shadow cast on a sundial. Only some people were there on a clear-skied day but the writing allowed the others to find equal potency in the shadow’s absence.” The aim is to write and design experiences that are subtle and meaningful, not brash or overtly disruptive. The result is an experience greater than the sum of its parts, where digital, textual, and the very moment in which it all happens combine.

As Duncan Speakman says, if these kinds of stories and experiences can be done right, “what happens will be more surprising and more beautiful than anything we could have created alone”.

Ambient Literature

So what happens when the place where you're reading becomes the stage for the story? How can your location shape and alter the story you are hearing? How might writing, reading and the idea of the book itself change when we use technology to design stories, rather than just present them?

These questions are at the heart of a two year research programme that will see the Universities of the West of England, Bath Spa and Birmingham investigate the emerging field of Ambient Literature; situated literary experiences, delivered by pervasive computing platforms, that respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story. Managed by UWE's Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC) and awarded £800k by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the project, which launches in May, will combine expertise in the history of the book with research into the future of reading.

Led by Professor Jon Dovey and Dr Tom Abba of UWE Bristol, working with Bath Spa's Professor Kate Pullinger and Professor Ian Gadd, Birmingham University's Dr Matt Hayler, and Bristol tech partners Calvium, Ambient Literature will see traditional academic research inform the development of three original stories, to be delivered in new, experiential forms.

Jon Dovey, says, “The scope of the team's work is nothing short of designing and developing a new literary genre, in which pervasive technology delivers story and experience. We've been researching location-based computing and storytelling for some years but we now want to consolidate our experiments, and work with the publishing industry, to build a market for this new kind of storytelling.”

Tom Abba adds, “It's important to remember that storytelling invokes landscape and has always made use of the world around us. This project combines academic research with publicly-tested commissions to see how we can shape storytelling in a networked, digital age.”

The Ambient Literature project launches in London, Bristol and online in May 2016. Follow the project on twitter: @ambientlit

Moving Stories was written by Simon Moreton and originally appeared in our REACT Newspaper