from our own correspondent

I’m one of the three artists that have been commissioned to create a work of ambient literature,

right now it’s in progress, untitled and unfinished

so for now this is an update, a missive of sorts

As a maker it’s always interesting to see your practice framed in academic contexts. While a clear definition of what ambient literature might be still seems to be floating in our peripheral vision, the thoughts that are appearing on this blog resonate and sometimes even describe the kind of work I’ve been exploring for the last ten years or so. It was interesting to read Amy Spencer’s post about authoring the uncontrollable, it describes a world of writing practice that I would definitely situate myself in (along with artists such as Coney, Blast Theory, Ant Hampton, Silvia Mercuriali et al.). I feel that approaches the ambient literature research is exploring have existed for a while but are only now being collated and named. I’ve been monotonously banging on about allowing space for the world to happen in these forms of writing for a long time so it’s good for me to reflect on what that might mean today.

In light of all this I decided to begin the current project as a re-make/mix/dux of piece of mine from 2007 called “Always Something Somewhere Else.” At the time I had been creating site specific audio walks, no GPS technology or digital interaction, just pre-recorded playback. The team at HP Labs (who now make up most of Calvium, the tech partners on this project) asked me to make a geo-located walk, under the instruction that it should work and be relevant at any site. What initially seemed like an impossible task led to my first experiments in writing for unknown spaces, and attempts to make audiences/listeners/readers connect with their immediate environment, even if I as the author didn’t know where that was.

The fiction of that piece asked you to seek out types of place, you would then hear stories about other people in remote but isomorphic locations. In the present time, where I feel surrounded by rising tensions over borders and nationalism, I wanted to return to the idea of making something that connects you to a physical, sonic and social other.

Writing for unknown environments is something I’ve been doing continuously since that time, and I find it a very comfortable form to work in, but this is the first time I’ve really returned to the idea of connecting the remote to the immediate.

I’m hesitant to describe too much of the current work right now, as it still feels in quite a delicate and ephemeral state, suitable for verbal discussion but likely to break if committed to type.


this is what I know so far . . .

I’m currently describing it as a collection of distributed maps. Away from the fiction of “Always Something Somewhere Else,” this new piece is much more documentary in approach. It addresses our awareness of social and environment change, to encourage reflection on and attention to the continuous changes that are happening around us. It seeks to do this by creating intersects between your own environment and stories of change from remote places. For me there is another more urgent question that circles around all of this—

If we are more conscious of gradual change, would we be so shocked by events that reveal how different things had actually become?

The form of the piece is part printed book, part audio guide.

The audio guides you through your local environment, sometimes offering you agency to choose types of location, sometimes pushing you towards virtual sites the software creates. At all these sites the pages of the book offer accounts of journeys through remote places that have some connection to where you are right now. The physical materials, a different smell, maybe just the way you are standing. The voice in your ear talks about you, the voice on the page speaks about the other. This rule may become broken.

At each location the software fixes a connection between this remote story and the GPS co-ordinates of your location, so that if you return to that place the narrative continues the same thread, becoming tethered both in your environment and your memory.

So where do these remote stories come from?

In searching for places that embody change I selected 3 situations from around the world.

The disappearing Latvian population.

The sinking wetlands of Louisiana.

The growing deserts in Tunisia.

Through each of these places I make a one week journey. I do not intend to return with the answers, or detailed analysis of the multiple causes for these changes. In such a minimal time period it would be arrogant to think I could. Instead I bring back a document of a journey. Field recordings and interviews, images and descriptions of what I discovered, felt and experienced. It would say I’m almost working in what Kathleen Stewart has called a “contact zone for analysis.”

In January I travelled through the Latvian snow visiting villages that had disappeared or were no longer officially recognised.

unrecognised village

field recording emptiness

Between the crumbling remains of abandoned Soviet industry and abandoned rural traditions, I found people who remained while they watched their best friends leave.

unfilled apartments
contact zone

I listened to stories of hope and of sadness, of possibility and potential alongside reluctant acceptance.

Last week I explored the wetlands of Louisiana.

what once was land
last family

Travelling by car along bridges that let you look down on a landscape carved up by the oil industry, then by kayak through what still remains of cypress tree swamps.

salt water incursion
contact zone

I spoke to people who fear the water, and people who live with it. I looked at maps of how much land has already disappeared, and listened to projections of what will be gone in our lifetimes.

hydrophone swamp recordings

I stood on levees that divide lush undergrowth from the barren dead forests they created.

(I cannot describe these two trips without thanking my travelling companions Elina Ventere (LV) and Sara Zaltash (LA) who not only navigated the routes but asked the best questions, opened hidden doors, and raised the right provocations. Also Nick Triggs and Fiona Calvert for tirelessly making the logistics work.)

How all this material will be drawn together still exists only in notes stretching across large paper sheets in my room. I’m hesitant to make any bold connections between it all until I bring the last stories back.

Tunisia beckons.

— Duncan Speakman

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