Digital Ambience, Locative media & The Cartographer's Confession - a review.

Author James Attlee has his creative blueprint all over his geo locative fiction, the Cartographer’s Confession: from his fascination to the backstreets of London, to its myriad voices and sounds of London, to the geo-politics of post war immigration. Attlee was commissioned to take up this project by the Ambient Literature team in Bristol: an inter-disciplinary collaboration between three universities that had arts and humanities research council funding.

Screen shot from the CC app

Screen shot from the CC app

First, a quick note on the term ambience because it’s coming up quite a lot these days. According Dovey and Hayler in their up-and-coming article ‘Critical Ambience’, ambience is concerned with “where physical environments co-constitute the work itself...forms of cultural experience that extend across, for example, forms of live performance, worship, architecture, dance, cinema and AR..” In other words “environments ecological or theatrical can be imagined not only as spaces but as active players in complex systems of transformation.”

Alongside Attlee, the Ambient literature team also commissioned Kate Pullinger, who produced Breathe, and Duncan Speakman, who was behind the award winning It Must Have Been Dark By Then. With the Ambient Literature’s remit to “ investigate the locational and technological future of the book,” these three artists each took it upon themselves to responded to this bold proposition in quite different ways: Both Speakman and Attlee’s works are experienced via geo locative apps, whereas Pullinger’s work is web-based. The Cartographer’s Confession takes the most standard literary approach out of the three projects.

While novels in their physical form haven’t yet been superseded Kindles or ibooks, as was loudly predicted 20 years ago, there’s no doubt that more people are now seeking to experience places, and make sense of them and their concomitant stories through their mobile devices. So Ambient Literature is, I’d argue, most prescient in this new field of work.

Attlee was a good pick for this project. His fascination for place-based stories, micro narratives, and little known histories shine through his professional oeuvre as a writer. His book Isolarion - takes readers down Cowley Road in Oxford - Attlee’s home town. It connects the university to the lesser known car manufacturing plant and the road that housed waves of migrants and their businesses over the years and affords us an insight into the “other Oxford you won’t find in the guidebooks.” Two books after Isolarion came Station to Station, which was based on the London-Bristol train line and was, “Part voyage of exploration, part history, part meditation on the nature of travel itself… on a journey into the psyche of a nation along one of its most iconic lines”. Station to Station also led Attlee into his first geo locative project Writer on the Train,  which unfortunately never quite made it into fruition - the developer left for better things. The idea behind this prototype app was that commuters who were en-route between Bristol and London line were to be given weekly postings by a hidden on-board writer (Attlee), into the country, the Roman viaducts etc., as they sped along - little did they know at the time that trains make for lousy GPS connection. But still a great idea and quite probably this problem could be mitigated today.

Screen shot from CC

Screen shot from CC

In a quiet cafe in Borough market in London, not far from where the first chapter of the Cargotgrapher Confession ends, Attlee tells me this. A tall and unassuming man, he tributes much of the success in The Cartographer’s Confession to a woman called Emma Whittaker, the ‘‘experience designer’ - a curious, but appropriate title if there ever was. It was Emma, who came to the task with a PhD in locative narratives and with considerable experience building geo locative storied apps herself - who helped Attlee reign in his initial ideas and writing, and craft it all into a smooth and cohesive geo-locative experience. This saw both Whittaker and Attlee walking around the streets of London, plotting out sites and choreographing the experience that goes from the Tate Modern to the Borough markets, across the river to Leicester Square, then back across the river again to the Norwegian church in Bermondsey district.

When I walked the Cartographer’s Confession, I was not long in the UK. I was new to the London streets, feeling overwhelmed by the volume of people, and donning my headphones and disappearing inside the soundscape of the Cartographer’s Confession was something of a Godsend. Right from the start, when I heard the rich sounds, the distant boats and the pungency and bustle of post war London, I was drawn in.

The Cartographers Confession is at its core a heart-opening, but in no way predictable, story about two refugees, a mother and son. Chapter one, which starts off outside the Tate Modern, introduces us to the two who have just escaped from Oslo and are seeking home here not far from the London docks among a community of market traders and performers. When one day the mother disappears the story then “follows that boy’s attempt to manage both the city and his loss by becoming a cartographer and ultimately by confronting the part of his history that has caused him pain, resulting in a violent denouement.” Set against this mother-son narrative is a non-fictional account of the winter in 1931 when many migratory swallows were unable to cross the Swiss Alps. This situation brought people from many nations together in a bid to try to help the birds get to Venice : the cooperation getting the swallows is ironic counter narrative when considering the deportation of Jews a decade later. These three narratives, the son’s search for his mother, the mother’s recount of her journey, and that of the birds: these all drew me in, in much the same way a novel worked. Only this isn’t a novel. This in some ways is better.  

Attlee tells me how he came upon the story when looking at a batch of family photos taken shortly after the war. These depict a mix of migrants, street people and hawkers who lived along the shoulder of the Thames in a shell shocked, and cratered city. Some of these photos have made it through to the final app. One in particular, an Italian migrant who wears a thick “greasy” suit, who has a monkey at his side, is a powerful evocation of the time and place. And it was this one, Attlee tells me, that was an inspiration for the story. While I was most curious to hear that people when testing the app, connected most to the photos, for me it was most definitely the narrative that drew me in. Nonetheless, the photos do play a powerful part of the experience, and at several points the images and the people marry up beautifully to story we hear and the place where we stand.

Each geo locative storytelling experience promises us something; whether it be a compelling story, information, or a ‘unique’ experience. They also asks something of us in return – whether it’s memory on your phone, time needed, or energy expended: walk five hundred metres to hear the next instalment etc. Common logic would suggest that geo locative apps should be short, pithy and to the point. The Cartographer’s Confession, however, flies in the face of this logic. It promises us “a story of migration, loss, betrayal, and retribution that builds to a savage denouement.”And it asks 4hrs of our time walking through the busy streets of London, and even catching several trains. I appreciate this is quite an ask. It actually took me 8 hrs to do the Cartographers Confession and saw me get lost a couple of times. But I was new to London, I had plenty of time. I had come here to test out these sorts of projects, so I loved it all the more. The fact that it was warm surely helped too. But I don’t I believe I could have discovered central London in any other better way. I was in my own world with Thomas and his journey. People around me were leaving me alone. My ears were warm and when I reached the end of the story, I wanted it to continue.  

Outside the Pervasive Media Studios in Bristol: home of the broader Ambient Literature Project

Outside the Pervasive Media Studios in Bristol: home of the broader Ambient Literature Project

While the app draws upon both digital and analogue media, uses video, maps, images and text files, it is the highly crafted bed of audio that most caught my attention. The music was produced by both Jay Auborn, of dBs Music and Attlee plays guitar and co-wrote the tunes with his band, The Night Sky. The music is geared to shift and at no point did it get on my nerves. Quite the opposite. Great care is also taken in selecting the actor’s voice of Thomas, our main character. And it is his voice, whilst clearly drawing off Attlee’s strong and detailed writing, that pretty much carries the show from start to finish. Having come from the school of radio documentary making, I am excited by the range of audio styles these audio app experiences can now afford. Invariably they often go over budget. So to hear the end result when someone of Attlee’s calibre lends his creative writing and research skills to the mix, is a fine thing indeed.

Hunting out the next chapter on the London streets

Hunting out the next chapter on the London streets

The Cartographers Confession is a shiny new addition to the geo locative storytelling family but is it a success? If we measure this by the usual metrics, the number of downloads, its commercial capacity and market potential, then I suspect not. But, if we measure the Cartographer’s Confession in its ability to deliver a new type of locative experience worthy of the novel (the original brief), then I think this is a success and I would suggest the likes of publishing companies, journalists, historians and writers, many whom are now wondering how negotiate the digital world, should sit up and take notice of what’s going on here: whether to Attlee’s approach to place-based narrative; the role of the place itself and how it is shaped and affords its own unique part in the storied journey; or how the app platform and functionality are configured to support the total mobile led experience. I think Ambient Literature has pulled off something quite remarkable. While improvements can most certainly be made, this project is, I suggest, taking us forward into a credible mobile led literary experience, and pointing to a (5G) world where stories will increasingly unfold around us.

Unfortunately, however, if you are a writer or a journalist wanting to check this out you’d better get in quick. For the Cartographers Confession won’t be around too long as Ambient Literature have not factored in any sort of succession plan by way of ownership or IP of the Cartographer’s Confession. For people like me who’ve been in this game for 5 years, this is an annoying reality. Like so many geo locative creative projects, whether Leah Barclay’s Sonic Babylon or Simon Bradley’s Archeology of Voice, the Cartographer’s Confession is not alone in its promise to fall off the app store shelves in due course. Because geo locative works need to be housed within an expensive app framework, with developer contracts and yearly maintenance fees, this new realm of digital storytelling brings with it a high redundancy rate. As a result there is very little out there in the public sphere by way of a record or archive of these wonderful works. I hope this change and in time to come these sorts of ground-breakers afford their own school of study much like film or writing does today.

Might there be other directions, other than through app-based platforms, that projects like the Cartographer’s Confession gain broader public appeal and traction in time to come? Will it be through Google Glasses, Bose’s new take on the Detour app, or via a live streaming web-based application? I don’t know. What I do know is that locative storytelling is not going away. Whether we experience these stories through apps or via web-based streaming in time to come, I believe that many of the creative and technical, and even geographical, principles inherent in the Cartographer’s Confession will soon find their moment. I also believe that audio will play an increasingly central role here (fingers crossed all you out there in radioland, because the locative audio storytelling palette, is very rich indeed). I just hope that when this next ‘big thing’ comes along, someone puts the Cartographer’s Confession back out there. This work is an important marker on the road to mature locative storytelling. More please!

Please note: this work in the UK has only been possible through the generous support of Queensland Government and Arts Queensland - and friends and family.