Lately there has been an emergence of location aware or physically located narrative works that deal with narrative as a series of data packets woven throughout the physical city, where they may be experienced in a pattern determined by the movements of the reader/user. [Murmur] from Toronto and 34 North 118 West from Los Angeles are two of these.
[Murmur], by the Toronto-based collective of the same name, is an "archival audio project" that establishes links between narrative fragments and specific points in city neighbourhoods. When a user calls in using a cellular telephone, points in the city scape marked by encoded street signs trigger stories collected from other users and residents. In [Murmur], which has done installations in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, the reader/user of [Murmur] augments the experience of wandering through the streets with this additional layer of information. The city is to be understood as an interface for narrative fragments so that they may be experienced audibly against the real backdrop of the city.
34 North 118 West, by Los Angeles artists Naomi Spellman, Jeremy Hight and Jeff Knowlton, uses a tablet PC, headphones, a GPS device, and custom software to take users on tours of areas of Los Angeles. The focus of this project is on "narrative archaeology" and the investigation of liminal city areas such as abandoned industrial zones, in which layers of time and story are unveiled to the wandering reader/user. As they move through the area, a GPS reading triggers audio fragments in the headphones, resulting in a dynamic fictional experience that follows the user's unique path.
In my view, transposing narrative into the large scale physical setting of the city has the consequence of pushing the limits of narrative form in the same kinds of ways hypertext does in relation to linear fiction. Primarily this is linked to a shared concern with the spatial and navigational relations between data fragments, which is central to hypertext, but location aware and physically located works have the added dimension of taking some of the formal concerns of hypertext - such as the active agency of the reader, non-linear narrative structures, and open authorial models - and opening them into new spaces which might serve in the future as increasingly fertile areas for writing and writers.
Hypertext fictions are spidery systems where fragments of information may be encountered and re-mixed in a pattern determined by readers as they navigate through the space of the work. The author designs the data packets and the pathways of the system and encodes the packets as a series of clickable nodes. Location aware works do the same but take spatial and navigational relationships outside the almost purely mental space of the computer and posit them in the living city, which has the effect of expanding the way the reader can be engaged in the work. The reader is pulled back into the world, into physical space, and away from the screen.
Using physical space as an element in the experience of fiction increases the active agency of the reader by further opening the unfinished narrative space. The readers may interpolate themselves intellectually, augmenting the manner in which they participate in the construction of the narrative. It is no longer simply through the imaginative translation of the reader into the character of the "I" or through the reconstruction of the non-linear story in the reader's mind, but a truly active transition - physical as well as imaginative, with the dynamic elements of place and space and mood and the real time subjective experience of the world affecting the process of reading. Both [Murmur] and 34 North 118 West create an experience in which the user/reader/walker encounters different versions of the same space simultaneously, so that the stories become linked to both the real and imagined city, where the user must merge impressions in real time into a third synthetic experience. In this sense, the city becomes an interface through which the work is experienced.
Arguably, this increases the experimental potential in these location aware works beyond the parameters of hypertext, as the narrative packets that float ready for re-mixing in the experience of the reader/user/walker are less determined in terms of authorial control and linearity than anything in the past - less than in traditional narratives, less than in hypertext, less than in other kinds of works that explore movement as a trigger to narrative structures, such as the work of Toni Dove. The controlled formation in hypertext of pathways, connections, and links between narrative fragments by the author means that the works are still in some sense closed, determinate, only falsely or conditionally open, but in these location aware works the clickable points are placed in the city space (sometimes by one group, sometimes within a larger collaborative framework) and no pathways between them are determined. The order and experience of the fragments are totally, truly open. Myriad possibilities for movement within the city are as indeterminate, unpredictable, and organic as the layered, collaborative cultural space of the city itself.
It is hypertext but without the links between nodes: nodes in physically located narrative works are imbued with content and then left where they can be encountered by the reader/user/walker - in any order, in no order, in an order determined by the movement of the user. The last mechanical determination of the author is erased: the reader has total agency in an uncontrollable, unpredictable, living city. It makes hypertext seem microcosmic, almost sterile - at least more sterile than the world.
Though these works are still embedded in less-than-omnipresent mobile technologies or limited to installations in certain areas, I find them newly vital, popping out of life, becoming entwined with street experience, and I see that they contain the ability to extend the experience of fiction outward. The use of the physical world as a component in fiction expands the possibilities and potential for new kinds of work and pulls the discipline toward fields of experience previously unexplored as creative spaces which writers might use as a framework.
Kate Armstrong is a new media artist and writer who has lived and worked in Canada, France, Japan, Scotland, and the United States. Her work has taken a variety of forms including short films, essays, net.art, performative network events, psycho geography and installation. Her first book, Crisis & Repetition: Essays on Art and Culture was published in 2002. Her physically located narrative project PING is on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania. http://katearmstrong.com
34 North, 118 West:
Locative Media Workshop:
Interactive Futures: New Stories, New Visions: