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New Media

Toward a Literature of Ambience

I’m going to write a few of these. This is the first. It might be the last, but to be perfectly honest that’s going to depend on what works and what doesn’t. To kick things off (and I have a notebook made of stone that has scribbles for six of these posts) what follows are a set of thoughts about names and their value.

Here goes then:

1. On naming.
It’s been written that names impart power; they imbue an authority that namelessness does not possess. If you’re a writer, then understanding what it is that you’re making is probably critical to your chances of success. It’s certainly going to help.

But names can also be confining. Classification can stifle; it can stop you doing what you need to do. Sometimes, working without a genre is the most liberating thing in the world. There aren’t any rules, nobody has decided what it is that you’re actually doing, and the world is your oyster as much as it’s possible for it to be.

Genre is an odd concept. Clive Barker in on record (I can’t find the original source, but it’s articulated pretty thoroughly here. Hang on. I’m writing this bit as I go, and here’s the speech I wanted to find) as saying that ‘I think we should cancel the word genre, I think we should throw the word genre out’ (in fact, just go and read Clive’s speech). William Gibson remarked that genre was something invented by marketing staffers to persuade book buyers that ‘hey, you liked this one, here’s one just like it‘. It’s an invention of culture. A way of boxing us in and deciding what’s worthy and what isn’t. And while there’s something worthwhile about understanding the tropes of the world you’re working in; there are definite advantages to not knowing what you’re doing.

One of the first things that can happen the moment you’re told what you’re making is that you stop. Stage fright kicks in. You’re a deer in the headlights. The rules of writing (a novel, a play, a screenplay, immersive theatre, magic realism, mundane SF) lock you in, throwing ropes around your process, your relationship with your audience and with the work, and while eventually that might evolve into a template to work against, it’s initially catastrophic.

Before 2011, I think I knew what I wrote. I think I knew what it was trying to be, and how it was trying to work.

In sharp contrast, the writing I’ve been engaged in making for the last few years has no labels, no banners behind which to hide while we work out what to do next. Each piece is new, and while each piece builds from the last, they’re designed to forge something new each time, to define as we go along. Duncan’s work has been known to tap the well of melancholy like there’s no bottom to it, but that doesn’t define it any more than suggesting that because we’ve worked with sound then that defines the work we’ll make in the future too. I’ve made pieces with books, with digital technology, with the spaces between those two things, with public space, with the public and without their involvement, and the most interesting thing is that we don’t know what’s round the next corner.

Then there’s the comfort of a name and the power that comes with one. You can tell people what you’re doing, the name that you define and shape work around becomes a way to draw in a larger audience around that work who are attracted by the qualities they attach to the name, to the genre. Genres become safety nets for writers. Genres become walls to erect around the work you make, and then those same genres are ways to knock holes through those walls and make a doorway to admit your audience.

One way to look a this is that we’re at a crossroads. It’s possible that the work we make is being drawn into a larger set of practices, a set that we’re going to help define, but a larger set regardless. The Digital Cultures Research Centre is working out the shape of a research strand that would encompass ‘Ambient Literature‘, and our work is central to that process.

The crossroads is real though. I lead a double life these days – half of what I do is the job of a conventional academic, and so establishing a new field, and all that goes along with it is par for the course. The other half of my existence though, is not as an academic, and it’s there that the value of the project might be realised. If we can carve out a new field, and name some work in the process, appropriating practice and defining some grammars and processes, then we can do something useful.

For example, and a bit of an aside.
Pervasive Media. In 2009, before the Studio was established in Bristol, then this was a term used by a minority of creative practitioners and a few academics. It’s a risk, establishing a new term, but when you’ve got a studio with the best in the field, that risk is mitigated somewhat (although I notice that they haven’t got rid of that outfit in north Wales who have the co.uk address).

If we’re going to be defining Ambient Literature, if that’s going to be a banner under which we make the next four or five pieces of work, then now might be as good a time as any to make sense of what I do.


One comment for “Toward a Literature of Ambience”

  1. [...] This is the second in a short series of posts exploring ambient literature. They’re tentative steps, and are not meant to mark out inviolate territory, rather work in gas-light toward something that seems to sit in the gloom of quasi-academic thought. The first one is here. [...]

    Posted by other things | Edgelands | March 12, 2014, 7:44 am

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