Ambient Literature…

Or a literature of ambience

This is chapter 1
We look up from our phones and then both move to opposite sides of the archway.
We lean our backs against the old wooden doors so that we are facing each other.
We look at each other for a moment.
People pass between us, but they don’t notice us, we’re invisible, our faces don’t register.

You stay exactly where you are.
We look at each other.
This voice is not my own,
but for now it will speak for me

You pay attention to what I’m wearing, to how I’m standing.
There are no irrelevant details.
We won’t be together all the time on this walk,
so you need to remember me.
I’m trying to tell you something without words.
Can you see what I’m saying?

I’m standing under the arch of Temple Bar, in London, at the edge of Paternoster Square. St Paul’s Cathedral lifts into the sky behind me, and I’m not alone. I’m wearing a pair of headphones, which are attached to my phone. Music, and the narration above, is playing through them and I’m not in London in 2015, I’m somewhere else. I’ve been transported, slipped out of the bustle of the capital and my partner and I are in a shared space, mediated by the technology in our pockets and the sound in our ears. We stare at each other, lock eyes, and as instructed by the voice in our heads, one of us walks away.

We have spent a great deal of time so far thinking about what digital technology does to books. How it can affect the way we write, create and design, and what experiencing fiction through a digital lens might be. For a short time, we’d like to turn the lens outward and ask a different question:

What impact does exterior space have on writing?

We cannot ignore the presence of pervasive technology in this, okay, emerging field. We carry around little devices that connect us to a digital world. We’re networked into a wider system, and in addition to linking us and situating our presence (the simplest example is GPS location), it affords us the opportunity to interrupt our experience - to record by photograph, by film and by audio, and have those interruptions become part of our daily experience. We share our photographs, our tweets and our tiny fragments of the world. All from a device smaller than a deck of playing cards. Thinner too.

The example that introduces this section is taken from the opening of a Hollow Body. Commissioned by the Museum of London to accompany their Sherlock Holmes exhibition in 2014/15, it takes the form of an audio journey through London, taking in the borders of the City of London, Cheapside, Smithfield and Barbican. a Hollow Body announces itself as a cinematic experience, a soundtrack for the city. Imagine walking through a film where you are the main characters; the streets and narrow alleys of London acting as your cinematic backdrop. the language used to situate each participant is deliberately immersive and participatory, but also acknowledges the role of place in the narrative. Each pair of participants walk a pre-determined route through the city. Sometimes together, sometimes alone, and always accompanied by narration and instruction, by a situated response to the world around them.

It’s useful to think of the writing process here as a set of tools. There are more than we’re proposing, and those additions are going to be very specific to where your reader is, but here’s a set of starting points:

Finally, to return to the title of this short section. A Literature of Ambience, or Ambient Literature? Any emergent field—as Ambient Literature surely has to be—is going to be difficult to pin down in terms of exemplars, of works we can point to. Literature that addresses or makes use of the ambient though, is not in short supply. We’d like to draw your attention to a few starting points if you want to read further:

Teju Cole’s Open City.

Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways and Landmarks.

Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, Lights out for the Territory and Slow Chocolate Autopsy.

WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.

Janet Cardiff’s work can be found here.

Circumstance’s work can be found here.

  • Liminal spaces. The evidence of being there. Principles. Things and non-things. Finding the edges. Distraction.