The Road to Ambient Literature

Tom Abba, 29 November 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

In an essay from 1993, Brian Eno, the musician and inventor of the term ‘ambient music’, wrote, ‘Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences’. It is a sentiment that Tom Abba (University West of England), who presented his work as part of the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research seminar series, would surely agree with.

Working alongside colleagues from Bath Spa University and the University of Birmingham, the two-year AHRC-funded Ambient Literature project attempts to ‘discover what happens when data aspires to literary form’. Moreover, the project seeks to ask ‘how situated literary experiences can be delivered through pervasive media systems to produce new forms of literary experience’. By looking at the history of the book, the Ambient Literature project aims to ‘establish how the physical situation of the reader has effected the nature of the writing itself’. Abba, like Eno before him, in describing his influences on the ‘road to ambient literature’, creates and celebrates work that are triggers for experiences.

The questions that have driven Abba in the last few years are: how do we write for a digital platform rather than in one? What does digital writing offer that conventional writing can’t? How do stories work, why do they work, why do readers operate in a certain way? How do we change books to make them digital rather than how does the digital change books? Ambient Literature, then, is going to be about creating ‘situated literary experiences delivered by pervasive computing platforms responding to the presence of a reader to deliver a story.’ By situated literary experiences, Abba means that they are cited in a certain type of place, not just a single location: they ‘have been curated for several different locations around the world’. A pervasive computing platform, meanwhile, is, simply, a smartphone. As Abba demonstrates, a smartphone has a microphone, a gyroscope, GPS, and can even measure altitude. The scope, therefore, to create interesting and compelling ‘situated literary experiences’ using a device that a large proportion of the general public has is enormous. These experiences, which the Ambient Literature project hopes to create, will only exist when someone choses to interact with them.


There were, however, many important stepping stones and learning experiences for this project. According to Abba, the novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski had ‘more impact on my thinking about the book than anything else I have ever read.’ House of Leaves is ‘constructed on several levels, a core narrative, annotations on that narrative and then a third narrative after those are complete.’ Importantly, for the purposes of Ambient Literature, the novel, ‘responds to the presence of a reader’; meaning is created by the novel playing with the position of the reader themselves. Rider Spoke, a piece of site-specific theatre by the Brighton-based company Blast Theory also had a significant influence on Abba’s thinking. Their website describes the project: ‘Rider Spoke invites the audience to cycle through the streets of the city, equipped with a handheld computer. You search for a hiding place and record a short message there. And then you search for the hiding places of others.’ Like House of Leaves, Rider Spoke responds to the presence of the reader and generates, as Abba observes, ‘a hugely powerful emotive’ experience.

Alongside other work such as the serialised John Wyndham-esque Silent History (an app which Buzzfeed claim ‘will change your reading experience forever’), William Gibson’s famous performance piece Agrippa (a digital poem on a floppy disk that deletes itself, thus commenting on the impermanence of digital technology), Abba’s own work with his company Circumstance has also been pertinent in his thinking about Ambient Literature. In Short Films for You, Abba and his colleagues at Circumstance created a book with an Mp3 player embedded within it. The book is a ‘collection of micro-experiences presented as a book with accompanying soundtracks and physical objects…. Each ‘story’ attempts to maintain a relationship between the sound in your ears, the place you are, and the object in your hands.’ Furthermore, other work such as These Pages Fall Like Ash, combines the digital and the physical in compelling new ways to create a story that uses both a book and digital texts hidden around a city. The experience makes you ‘walk, read, and look’ – allowing you to see the city in an unfamiliar way.

Ambient Literature will see the creation of three commissioned pieces of work, as well as more ‘traditional’ academic articles and books. The projects outlined above will all have, to a lesser or greater degree, influenced this endeavour. What is so encouraging and admirable about Abba’s approach is that storytelling and narrative are always at the heart of his work: the form these ‘situated literary experiences’ take are dictated by the story and not the other way around. Ultimately, Ambient Literature is an ambitious, exciting and innovative undertaking. The next twelve months are going to be fascinating to see how the project develops and, also, to see how the team go about triggering new experiences in the strange world that exists between the digital and place.

– Michael Goodman

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