That this kind of work relies on ‘being there’ is pretty evident. Like a Hollow Body, most works that are sited in a specific place are drawn with that location in mind. As such, they afford a writer a certain control over the reader’s experience of the text, while simultaneously embracing the possibility of distraction and the noise (both auditory and visual) of the world. The reader is situated somewhere in-between reading and experiencing, between the world and the story. They’re liminal.
What might be useful while describing the principles by which this work operates, is to start with Malcolm McCullough’s ‘Ambient Commons’.
McCullough’s text is concerned with the nature of ambience in media; in broader culture; and he does a fine job of exploring the nature of attention and the way that we interact with our surroundings. Ambient Commons isn’t an answer to ‘how to write ambient literature’, but it shines a light on it, illuminating a decent proportion of the landscape 1. Mapping is an exercise in analogy, a process of translation that asks the cartographer to situate themselves at a remove from what’s real, and to render it somehow abstract, somehow readable, and that landscape is rendered defined as a result of McCullough’s, and in turn our own, attention.
We tune our mental radios to the precise frequency of ambience, and we listen for a while.
McCullough provides a set of notes early in the book. Twelve ways to describe the ambient. Here’s one:
That which surrounds, but does not distract…
Attention, and the manner in which we read in a public place (assume for a moment that ambient literature might also be literature that by it’s nature is read or experienced in a physical, public space. It might not be, but let’s assume so for a moment) is important then. There’s something enveloping about that phrase, reminiscent of the nature of signs in architecture, and the design of streets and walkways. The ways in which the environment is planned and used, and also not-used or suggested, offering us a space in which to be ourselves.
An environment replete with non-things…
Which leads neatly on from the first. Here’s a question though: If we’re listening, and paying attention, what do we miss? Which fragments are overlooked in favour of the obvious or the essential. If I’m crossing a busy road, then my focus is no longer on the world as it might be, but as it is. Those non-things that we’re absorbed in, that we’re calling attention to, are gone, only to reappear in the world a few steps later. Where they went during their absence is a mystery, we only know that we’re safe again and they’re back.
And one more, for now:
A persistent layer of messages for somebody else….
We invade literature. We impose ourselves into a relationship between writer and text. We, as readers, are interlopers. Well, maybe. We do pick at stories though, we want to find them in the detritus of the world. It’s rare that a book is written expressly for you to read. It’s author might have an ideal reader in mind, but the odds of you being them are pretty long. But we read, and we continue to seek out stories. We’re leaning over the shoulder of another, reading words meant for someone else.
Those examples aren’t liminal. We’re trying to describe something without saying what it is. Blind men feeling their way around an elephant.
But in asking what use liminality might be to this field, the first question that came to mind was this:
How do we know that we’re operating on the edge of something?
Several answers immediately present themselves:
- When there’s a sheer drop to one side of your feet.
- When there’s a wall in front of you.
- When the lights go out
- When there’s an evident change in our surroundings.
Each of which signals two things: the presence of a body (physicality is significant to ambience) and an immediate change in some aspect of the surrounding space. A change that requires us to employ a new sense or, possibly more usefully, to augment an existing one. If there’s a sheer drop to one side (the edge of a cliff, for example) then as much as our forward progress is unimpeded by its presence, we’re more than usually aware of the space to our right and left. The rules change. If the lights go out, then we have to pay attention differently. We might turn a torch on (which suggests a McLuhanite technology-as-extension), or we might change our mode of attention. Sound becomes more important, tells us more about the space around us than it was previously permitted to do.
If we’re listening more acutely (or seeing, or touching), then its probable that we’re diverting energy from another sense in order to augment a primary channel. We’re focusing.
There’s a change in the nature of our distraction.
Harnessing that change, and before that, appreciating it, is key to writing for space and for site-responsive work. For example, if your reader is unhindered by a controlled accompaniment (music, narration) then what you have is their presence, and the momentum of the journey to move the narrative forward. What you add to that, how you use their environment, is the dressing on the scaffold; the flesh on the bones of a fiction.
The danger of mapping any landscape is that eventually your focus becomes so fine, so acute, that you mistake the map for the territory, and here’s a moment for Borges: ‘In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it’ (‘On Exactitude in Science’), and then you’ve crossed a particularly providential and awkward rubicon. ↩