Mix 2017 – Ambient Literature and Feral Hypertexts

Following on from my trip to ACM Hypertext in Prague I just returned from the Mix 2017 conference, held at Bath Spa University’s Newton Park campus in Somerset. Mix has much more of a focus on practitioners and scholars of digital media and was a really interesting comparison, as well as an enormously fun, lively, and informative event.

The connections between the communities was highlighted for me during Caitlin Fisher‘s opening keynote, on storytelling in mixed reality environments, when Caitlin revealed that her introduction to the field was through the original StorySpace system, in which she created a work with 17,000 links that her examiners refused to read digitally and instead insisted that she print out for them. Cue Ted Nelson’s fist thumping onto a table top and cursing the legacy of Xerox Parc. I was really struck by the way that Caitlin spoke about hypertext and hypermedia as a past technology, rather than something that had evolved, and could describe her current work as well. Caitlin really set the tone for the conference, and what followed over the next couple of days was a fascinating array of papers on all manner of interactive digital texts and media.

My own contribution was a talk on StoryPlaces called Snowflakes in Scotland, which was on our use of co-enquiry with creative co-design, specifically our trip to Tiree to create a locative story of our own. I have written about this trip before, but essentially StoryPlaces is a project to understand the poetics of locative storytelling, by working with writers across three different story deployments (Southampton, Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace Park). Our methodology was co-design, working with writers to understand their motivations and approaches, and to reflect with our English colleagues on the works created and the experience of readers. However, we realised that our knowledge of authoring a locative story was all second hand, so we used the Tiree Tech Wave as a kind of safe space, where we gave ourselves (as technologists) permission to write a locative story and learn from the experience. The focus being reflecting on the process rather than producing a fantastic text. The pressure was off!

Perhaps having Scotland in my title was a mistake, as rather than being in a session on locative media or interactive storytelling (StoryPlaces encourages stories that are non-linear), I was in a session called Across Cultures – although I guess bringing Computer Science to the party is sort of cross cultural. Nevertheless the talk was well received, and I had some great conversations with other people at Mix doing locative work.

For those that are interested you can read our story The Isle of Brine online (remember to activate Advanced->Demo Mode if you are not on Tiree). Or if you want to see one of the professional pieces, then the final work created for StoryPlaces was Fallen Branches by Katie Lyons, set in Crystal Palace Park, which is a great example of bringing together what we learned on the project.

Below you will also see the toolkit that was the ultimate outcome of our reflections on the pragmatic and aesthetic aspects of writing a locative fiction:

ToolKit v1public

Throughout the conference there were some really nice examples of innovative work, I especially liked the papers presented in the Reading the Location session. On storybombing: Casandra Atherton’s account of micro-stories embedded in the envrionment that through links or QR codes lead off into digital story worlds; a long map: Claire Dean presented her story of Persephone, rising from the underworld with the assistance of an arduino and an altitude sensor; and a fine and private place: Alistair Horne’s proposal for a locative story set inside the evocative surrounds of London’s Brompton Cemetery.

Despite the quality of the work presented throughout the conference I was really struck by a lack of interactive elements in the locative storytelling. Most of the work I encountered taking either a fully linear or fully open structure (I would describe these as Canyons or Plains). I wonder whether this is similar to Caitlin Fisher’s examiners insisting on printing her work, and a symptom of hyperstructure being undervalued, and the ways that it can be used to convey meaning overlooked. In StoryPlaces it has been very clear that narrative and locative structure are really a key part of a locative piece, and I think (perhaps because of a lack of tools) that they are still not that well explored.

The Ambient Literature project was a big part of Mix, and perhaps hopes to solve these problems too. In many ways it has the same goals as StoryPlaces – to explore the poetics of ambient literature (what we call location-based storytelling) – and even the same methodology, through the commissioning of several different pieces. But Ambient Literature is exploring from the humanities and digital media points of view and focusing on the wider experience, whereas StoryPlaces stripped locative storytelling down to its simplest forms and has focused more on the pragmatic and informatic aspects – with the goal of using theory to drive new models and tools for writers.

Jon Dovey, one of the leads for Ambient Lit, gave a keynote during the conference and made clear his reasons for using the terms ambient literature rather than locative literature, casting his net wider, and hoping to avoid some of the assumptions collected by locative lit over the years (for example, the use of GPS). The project presented its first example, It Must Have Been Dark By Then by Duncan Speakman, unfortunately I wasn’t able to try it out at the event, but the reception to the work was extremely good – and I enjoyed talking to Jon and Tom Abba about the project and the piece. One key difference, perhaps because of Jon’s concerns over the use of GPS, was that IMHBDBT does not use absolute locations, but instead a combination of relative generative locations and locations defined by the user, this means it is not anchored to one particular landscape and can be read in many places.

This is a very interesting choice. It makes a lot of sense in terms of finding an audience, as it allows people to experience the work in their local environment rather than having to make the trip to a specific one. But it also radically changes the way that place can be used in the writing, and misses out on the potential for topography to be linked to the narrative itself and used to aid navigational choices – perhaps less important for a linear piece than for an interactive one.

Jon also suggested his initial thoughts on the poetics of Ambient Literature: that it was about attention. This chimes with quite a lot of what we have seen as well, and I hope that StoryPlaces can work more with Ambient Lit in the future, as I feel we have huge amounts to learn from one another.

The final keynote of the conference was by Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen of Editions At Play, a collaboration between London-based Visual Editions, and Google Creative Labs in Sydney. They showcased some fantastic examples of digital literature that have arisen from their collaboration, including The Truth About Cats and Dogs (an interactive book that encourages you to take sides with its characters), Entrances and Exits (a literary experience melded with Google Streetview), and A Universe Explodes (a blockchain book, where each reader makes small modifications of  the text for the next reader). There were ideas here that I have seen talked about before (for example, All This Rotting, is a book where the text falls apart as you read it, reflecting the mental state of its narrator, and I was reminded strongly of an experimental piece that Mark Weak wrote about Alzheimer’s when we first began to explore Strange Hypertexts back in 2012 – we published some related work on Fractal Narratives, but not Mark’s piece). However, the execution of these was first rate, and they really excited the audience.

That made me think. I actually set a class exercise for my Games Design students in our session on poetics and narrative design for games, where I introduce the students to the idea of mechanics as metaphor. I ask them to imagine a digital version of a CYOA book, but then to think of one interesting mechanical twist. The exercise is to think of a story which has thematic resonance with that twist. For example, a mechanic where the choices are coloured according to the riskiness of their outcome might suit a story about premonition and fear of the future. All This Rotting is an excellent example of this sort of idea, and was powerful because it had been so effectively realised.

So why don’t we make more of these? Editions at Play has the advantage of Google money to make things happen, but the wider artistic and technical community has the ability to do this kind of stuff too, and at relatively low cost. I actually asked Anna and Britt a version of this question at the end of the keynote, essentially asking – if there is so much that we can do already, why are we not doing it? – and their answer was that it was about collaboration.

And that takes us back to where I started. With the separation of the communities doing this sort of work, and a lack of places where we might foster that collaboration. My conference diary this year is an attempt to understand these differences (I am hoping that ICIDS will complete the trio in November).

Nearly twenty years ago Mark Bernstein asked the Hypertext conference, Where are the Hypertexts? And that question still seems relevant today. Jill Walker gave an answer of sorts in 2005 when she suggested that the hypertexts have escaped, and have gone feral, and I noted that the community had followed her call to become more hunter gatherers than farmers in my SIGWEB conference report from 2008 and that the Hypertext conference was now a Great Safari. Nearly ten years on from that and I think the trend is even more pronounced, and that the hypertexts are out there, in the games we play, the transmedia we participate in, and the digital art that we enjoy.

Never before have so many people been experimenting with non-linear, digital, and interactive fiction. Now if we could only bring them and their different focuses together, things might get really exciting.