Where are you right now?

Read on the street: Experiencing Ambient Literature

“It Must Have Been Dark By Then” is an audio immersive project by Duncan Speakman that I experienced at the British Library in London. As part of the Ambient Literature endeavour, the spot was well chosen. More intriguing however, would prove the mix of freedom and guidance that was on offer.

I had come across the piece through Bristol University and the idea of ambient literature resonated with my love for books and travel and the wish for it to be actualised to digital times. 
Suitably enough, “the project began with a desire to seek out change,” according to the creator, who was on site that day.

And that change had to be retraced or rather explored by the participants. I was surprised to hear that the journey would take about an hour and that I would have to find my own path, equipped only with a book and a map on a mobile phone showing nothing but me as a blue dot on grey.

Still, I was ready to immerse and so sat down to read the intro while listening to ambient, almost melancholic music on the headphones. 
That is until a soft, female voice comes in and the journey begins.

It is to retrace the steps Duncan and the team made in the swamplands of Louisiana, to empty Latvian villages and the edge of the Tunisian Sahara. 
On the website, they call it “connecting the remote to the immediate, the precious to the disappearing.”

As a journalist, to me the narrative of the chosen localities already make for a great story, and while I still wonder, how this is to be relevant to London on a busy day, the voice of my audio travel companion is asking me: “Where are you right now?” followed by “Find a place where people live.”

The questions are captivating although my first impulse is to think that I’d be fine to be left alone with my thoughts on that journey. After all, it is one of the things I love about travel, on foot especially, that wandering of the mind.

However, soon fascination and immersion take over and strange incidents of synchronicity happen. Like that flower growing out from underneath a door that hides a construction site I see in the very moment the voice in my head says: “We shape things but they are always cracking through.”

I asked Duncan about this later, if he tries to consciously accounts for this synchronous experiences. In his practice of such projects, he says, he has learned to work with suggestion. “Rather than listing all possibilities, I frame it as more suggesting, so people can look for it and may choose for themselves what it is.”

These suggestions sure work, although it appears they are different dependent not only on the person but also the place. While the next task, to find and then “follow the water” reminds me of old tales of adventure and survival (mind you, I was in the middle of King’s Cross facing a man hole), to other audiences like those in Gent, other parts of the narrative resonated strongly, such as women in Latvia as they found themselves in the red light district at the time.

In the creators will though, the idea to follow the water was connected to the place in the respective chapter, Duncan tells me later, because “in New Orleans, everything is guided by it being upriver or down river, not North or South.”

Apart from connecting the audio to the place and moment, there are also illustrative suggestions in the book. The water for example, was again mirrored in the encroaching waters of St. Louis in the book, that I read next to the gully. With each page I turned, more of the text got literally flooded.

Such synchronisation of narrative and book design continued, i.e. when talking about the Sahara in letters that depicted the shifting sands of oncoming dunes.

As the protagonists in the books scan the horizon, so did I as I was asked although in London, a horizon is rarely more than a vanishing point. 
When suggested to walk towards it, a new largesse opened up that I had never seen before.

Next up was a thought that resonated. It was about the “repetitive structure of the city” that is mainly concrete, steel, stone. So I was out to find wood and while touching “nature” I read the next chapter.

Again, the ambient sounds were really well timed with the read, I could hear dripping water, the same time I came across leaking pipes in the text. The same was true for waves, wind, steps in the snow.

Adding to the experience were the great and comfortable headphones as well as the overall sound quality. Rather than struggling to hear, or it being too loud to recognise the surroundings, you could take both in at the same time. It pays that Duncan is a sound engineer by trade it appears, and it makes his piece an audio experience you truly want to immerse.

It was however more than that because even though there was no screen to be looked at constantly or augmented reality even, the combination of sound, script and walk opened up a new, a conscious way of seeing.

Also the app set up in itself added to the experience. It is most simple, with “Me” being a dot on an empty map. In its accessibility, however, the journey became imaginative, mind mapping as it played on the mind and memory, guided yet free.

It seems indeed like an essential piece of Ambient Literature, especially as the physicality of the book counteracts the fleeting nature of travel, surroundings, and memory.

The narrative too is fleeting in its fragments and ephemeral — three countries, places unheard of, some in no map, be it paper or screen, and protagonists with no introduction. But even so, or maybe because of this, it conveys an atmosphere that manages to overlay the actual moment.

Duncan wanted to convey the feeling of his actual journey and narrative. The team tried to reach places that were not on Google Maps (any longer) nor could they be found on paper maps and so they more than once hit a barrier. And this is an important part of the experience too, says Duncan, first to use “questions to pay attention to the place” but also to recreate his own dissatisfaction.

For Duncan, this “frustration that lies in not being able to get to a place conveys the idea of borders and territory,” and he deems it “important for experiential work, to recreate that feeling.”

So me too, was asked to find “the end of my map,” something or somewhere that refuses entry. I chose this:

After that last location where you read the last chapter, a voice in the app asks you to retrace your steps but breaks up after a while.
Regardless, I decided to take the short way back in an attempt to not override the memories of magic just yet and to return another time maybe. After all it felt as if I had given those common places personal meaning.

It is sunny now, not dark as the title suggest, and suddenly the surrounding feels like my hometown London again, but for the one hour it took me to journey around the British Library, this had been another place, a walk of mind.

  • Duncan Speakman is a member of artist collective Circumstance and has focused on mobile audio and locative media since 2005.
  • “It Must Have Been Dark By Then” is part of the Ambient Literature project, which is out to investigate the locational and technological future of the book.
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