Location, Location, Location … and Literature

Stories by the City, Stories by the Sea: Locative Literature and Narrative Archaeology

Verity Hunt, 25 Oct 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

Unless you are extremely adept at avoiding news on popular culture, you must have, in one way or another, encountered the mobile sensation that is Pokémon Go. In the past six months this augmented reality phenomenon has launched location-based gaming into the public consciousness. In the first paper in this year’s CEIR series, Dr Verity Hunt began by encouraging us to imagine if our smartphones alerted us to nearby voices from the past, rather than the presence of Pikachus. What if your phone could provide you, for example, with a story about the Victorian world set in the place you are standing, incorporating the archaeological traces of nineteenth-century narratives that permeate the built landscapes of our cities?

This is exactly what a team at the University of Southampton are achieving with the Story Places project, combining story-telling skills with the location-based technology behind Pokémon Go to create interactive historical landscapes. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the project has built a location-aware, storytelling application for smartphones, which supports situated stories interwoven with the places they are read. The team worked with a range of creative writers, including undergraduate and postgraduate students, taking three case study places as way to explore the potential of the application: Southampton Old Town and Docks, the Bournemouth Natural Science Society and the Crystal Palace Park in South London.

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The application responds to the conditions the user is experiencing: for example, a different page may be made available if it is raining, or if you visit the place at a certain time of day. Hunt argues that this creates a narrative that is uniquely responsive to, and embedded in, the fabric of place. She calls this radical form of storytelling ‘locative literature’. One of the key objectives of Story Places is to allow creative writing and critical practice to inform the development of mobile technology, rather than have the bounds and possibilities of locative literature be dictated by the technology available. The sections that make up such location-aware narratives are known as nodes. Hunt describes such technology as an ‘authoring tool’, which will allow writers to create the location-aware narratives they envision.

Many example of such narratives were provided as examples during the paper. Tory L. Dawson created a neo-Victorian sensation story, ‘The Destitute and the Alien’ (2016), which sees Jack the Ripper flee from Whitechapel to Southampton. Midway through the narrative, Dawson directs her readers to the gothic location French Garden, a quiet area of the town dominated by medieval ruins. She employs the places gothic atmosphere to set the scene for a murder, appealing to her readers’ embodied sense of the location.

In ‘Six Stories of Southampton’ (2016), Megan Humphries presents the voice of the local river goddess, to frame the six stories about Southampton all set in different times and places.  The reader can only open the closing passage (the voice of the river goddess), after visiting all six place nodes. She evokes the shifting waters of the Solent to portray how different histories overlap and confront each other in the city.

Tilly Edgar-Thompson’s ‘A Walk in the Park’ uses the existing paths in Queen’s Park to present he reader with a choice of three short stories, the topography of the park mirroring the narrative structure. The reader is invited to walk to a central point and look towards three different historical places, each with a different story to unlock. Hunt goes on to identify the usefulness of analogies between the respective organising structures of location-aware narratives and the text of the city. Locative literatures are controlled by hypertext rules, set by a programmer, while the text of the city works under topographical and cultural rules that inform our behaviour and expectations. Stories such as ‘A Walk in the Park’ fits the shape of its hypertext network to the spatial network of the park.

Bringing her paper full circle Verity Hunt returns to phenomenon of Pokémon Go. She identifies how, alongside sensationalist media reporting of the dangers of the game, a proposed potential health benefit is that it encourages an often sedentary group (gamers) to walk, often for hours on end. She describes how the same topic was discussed by the Story Places team, as well as in their discussions about the app with the public. Not only did many people identify the various health benefits that could accompany reading outdoors, but the combination of improving fitness and getting involved in and improving their knowledge of local history particularly struck a chord.

So perhaps after the storm around Pokémon Go dies down (as signs suggest it soon will), and people lose interest in their latest bit FitBit or Apple Watch, locative literature will be next to tap into this seeming desire to connect modern smartphone technology with the landscapes and places around us.

— Harriet Gordon
GordonH@cardiff.ac.uk

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