Authoring the Uncontrollable

As works of ambient literature respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story, a sense of unpredictability is inherent in this new literary form. Neither the world, nor people, always behave in predictable ways and this is a feature of this type of situated literature. In a work of ambient literature, the reader must be present in a physical location and if, for example, they are prompted to explore a city street then this location becomes an integral part of the narrative. However, this is a part of the narrative that the writer cannot fully control. It is part of their authorial territory but, as they might not know exactly what the reader sees in front of them, uncontrollable elements may become unexpected features of the story.

I recently experienced Experiment II, a piece of ambient literature developed by Tom Abba for the Festival of Ideas in Bristol. The audio narrative, listened to through headphones, directed me to walk and then stop look at the river. As I sat on a bench facing the water, a stranger approached me asking for spare change. Wearing headphones, I felt cocooned and separated from the world by the words in my ears. As I took off the headphones to speak to him, I was jolted away from the narrative and back into the real world. I knew that I could return to the story by simply putting the headphones back on, but I realised that this encounter became a part of the narrative experience that the writer could not control.

Such spontaneous interruptions that influence the way that the narrative is experienced are fragmented and ephemeral. As you experience a work of ambient literature, a cyclist may pass by and distract you for a second. A car might get a little too close to a pedestrian or a person might shout to attract the attention of another. You can be interrupted when reading a printed text, but I think this operates differently. When reading a printed book in a physical location, sat on a bench half-aware that the world is passing by, your attention may wander. You might look up from the page, note a disturbance, decide it isn’t worth your attention, and look back down at your book, starting where you left off. In a work of ambient literature, the boundaries of the narrative are less fixed. Instead of being printed on the pages of a book held in your hands, it might be more nebulous and the edges between story and reality may blur. Without the framing device of a material form, and with its position embedded in the physical world, the boundaries of this narrative form are less reliable.

In his recent blog post, Matt Hayler recognised that there are “stories in the air,” waiting to be discovered. When told as ambient literature, these stories have a temporal rather than a physical frame; they appear and then they disappear. They might be told by a writer or they may be what you, as a reader, experience for yourself during an encounter with a place. In many ways, the form is similar to a performance and, in her blog post, Kate Pullinger compares it to immersive theatre and the movement of performance away from traditional theatre spaces and into public spaces In such performances, the real-world location become part of the fictional story and the edges overlap but only for a specific time period. Once the performance is over, the everyday world reappears and the story fades back into the background until only the resonance of the experience remains.

Such interruptions and interventions require a rethinking of authorial control. A writer may be required to relinquish a degree of control over their narrative and leave room for external features, such as the influence of the physical environment and chance encounters, such as an interruption from a passerby. There is the potential for writers to leave space for the world to enter the story in interesting ways. This unpredictability is not separate from the ambient literature form, but, instead, it is part of it and it offers opportunities for exciting experimentation as we test the boundaries of literature.

—Amy Spencer

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