Site specific literature explained…
Writer and Media Artist
July 5th, 2011
What On Earth is Portable Digital Technology Mediated Site Specific Literature?
Think of a gravestone. That is a piece of site specific literature. It tells you whose mortal remains you are standing on top of, and it tells you where on earth they are: right under your feet. Lots of places of pilgrimage have site specific literature, from churches to the sign in the players’ tunnel onto the pitch at Anfield that says “This is Anfield.”
The power of both a gravestone and the sign in Liverpool Football Club’s ground is that they are “here”, and nowhere else. They both say “This is the place.” So if we are trying to come up with some sort of definition of Portable Digital Technology Mediated Site Specific Literature, its first power, or property, might be memorial, it makes memories. Of course all books make memories, but site specific literature uses “here” to help make them. A contemporary literary example is Andrew Motion’s poem on the side of a building in Sheffield, and another is the Bookmark Canada project which describes itself as a “pilgrimage” across sites in Canada where passages from books have been chiselled into the environment of the places where they happened.
A second power, or property, of site specific literature might be how it is navigated. The sociology professor Richard Sennett refers to cities as “non linear narratives” and references Italo Calvino, the writer that urban designers, academic urban geographers and artists with an interest in urbanism always quote. We can navigate a city by any number of pathways, in any order, and that navigation writes a story. There are points of comparison here between site specific literature and hypertext narratives, and with “choose your own adventure” books and text based adventure computer games. But I’ll have to leave it to someone who knows more about those things than me to expand on it.
To some extent all stories have a map, but take Dubliners as a straightforward illustration. You could map the book onto the city, and read it by, or while, walking. Or not, depending what has been knocked down since 1914, but that difference between the page written in 1914 and the place of Dublin in 2011 is a site specific effect. The problem for the writers of site specific literature though (if such persons exist now or ever) is the opposite of the city as an infinitely navigable, non linear narrative. The problem is that most people’s experience of cities is quite linear – work, home, pub – and getting them to read new chapters, which, in site specific literature, are different places, is quite difficult (part of the “atoms problem”, of which more below). This is why it might be that poetry lends itself most immediately to site specific literature, because poetry leaves the narrative to the city itself.
The third property of site specific literature, and maybe the most interesting to play with, might be “world building”. All stories do this, but science fiction and fantasy novels make the most illustrative case studies for comparison. If you are writing a fantasy novel you have to decide, for example, what the money is called. This is world building. In site specific literature, the world is, well, the world. You get to import all its concrete presence at a stroke. “This is Anfield” is three words, but if you are a Liverpool fan, getting to touch that sign makes a memorable bit of reading. So site specific literature might come to be about re imagining the world. The current metaphor, taken from “magic lens Augmented Reality”, is to “overlay” stories on to reality. But a better one might be to undermine reality. To take the world as it is, and give people experiences of the process of imagining it differently. Lots of literature does this of course, maybe it all does, so site specific literature just becomes another kind of writing. If it is anything at all. Who knows?
So, that is the site specific part nailed down then! What about the portable digital technology bit?
This brings us to the atoms problem. As publishing platforms go, gravestones and football stadiums are expensive and intrusive, and it’s a lot of hassle to navigate them. You’ve got to drag your atoms to Liverpool and get them to let you into Anfield. It’s a pilgrimage. And only the poet laureate is likely to get chance to stamp his or her poem down the side of a building.
Even if we could have them, do we really want too many 10 storey high poems? A page the size of a building isn’t very book-like. And we value the qualities of being book-like. One of the distinctions between reading on an iPad and on a desktop computer is that an iPad is more book-like. It’s handier. Part of being book-like is portability. We can open a book on the bus on the way home from a long day at work and be in another world straight away. Or maybe in a “mixed reality” (another phrase from computer science, but a good one to steal), a mixed reality that is half in our heads and half on the bus. Another book-like quality is intimacy. The mixed reality we are in on the bus can be racy, horrifying, violent or all three, and no-one will ever know what is going on in our mixed reality heads. Portable digital technology shares a similar intimacy – no one knows what we are reading or writing in our text messages on the packed bus.
But the portable, intimate, cheap-to-reproduce-and-distribute atoms of books mean they can’t enforce site specific effects. Dubliners can be read in Manchester, and often is. You can choose to experience site specific effects through printed paper, of course, for example the Situationist game of using a map from one city to navigate in another. Portable digital technology, in contrast, can enforce site specific effects. A mobile phone with a Global Positioning System (GPS) chip in it can combine the portability, intimacy and cheap-to-reproduceness of a paperback book with a site specificness that is as rigorous as building a football stadium. If you want to, you can create literature that can be tucked into pockets and handbags – it is on an intimate, portable, book-like device – but that can only be experienced while standing in one single spot, and nowhere else on the face of the earth.
But just because you can do it, why would you want to?
Again, who knows. Maybe to play around with some of the possibilities of site specificness, or to play around with a different range of the book-like qualities of portable digital technology than publishers’ apps are currently doing. All that can be said for certain is that some people have had a go at creating portable digital technology mediated site specific literature. And that these attempts are experiments with what portable technology means for writing and reading rather than for publishing.
The examples of portable digital technology mediated site specific literature created so far have only been experiments and curiosities. This piece is no more than trying to bring these experiments and curiosities together in a list, to speculate about why people have tried to do them, and to identify what features unite them.
The rules for getting onto the list are these:
* Must try to enforce site specificness (meaning you have to be “here” to experience it). This rules out some things I really like, and which are in the same territory, for example Blast Theory’s Day of the Figurines, Tim Etchells’ A Short Message Spectacle and Kidmapper among others, and also rules out museum apps unless they use some form of positioning. But there have now been enough attempts to enforce site specificness for it to be the defining characteristic.
* Must be book-like. Intimate, portable, handy, cheap.
* Must have some literary qualities. This rule is so I can exclude city guides along with museum apps. There are probably a lot of GPS enabled city guide apps, but it would be boring to make a list of those. Shakespeare’s London is a city guide, but it’s literary.
* Must be written words, spoken word audio or video. I could just stick to written words, but I want to include Riot!, Murmur and Rider Spoke, which are all spoken words, and so I can’t see how I can exclude moving images, though I don’t yet have any examples of that.
* Not Music. There have been some excellent site specific music initiatives, especially Our City Our Music in Leeds (Leeds has quite an interesting footnote in the history of portable technology mediated site specific arts, being the venue of both Our City Our Music and City Poems), and a band in America even released an album as a site specific app, but site specific music is just that, site specific music. They can get their own list.
* No actors. This isn’t as hard and fast a rule as “Not music”, and is related to “Must be book-like”. There are a lot of experiments with pervasive media and theatre around at the moment, some of which I really like, but they’ll always run up against the atoms problem. If you are using live people to create your effects, it’s always going to be expensive and risks being intrusive. As a rule of thumb, the more book-like, the more chance of getting on the list.
* What about games?
Hmm. This is tricky. There is a long and ongoing history of experiments with location aware mobile phone games, and many of these have world building, meaning world re imagining, site specific effects. After all, what is treating the streets of Manhattan as a giant Pacman board (PacManhattan) if it’s not world re-imagining. But there are a lot of these games. Are they all literature? And what about Foursquare and the like? Me becoming the mayor of the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House is certainly re imagining the world.
So to sort out all of these games I’m going to fall back on the properties of book-likeness and literary qualities. Pacmanhattan doesn’t make the list because running round Manhattan like a loon trying to escape from people pretending to be ghosts and tracking you on a GPS phone might be a lot of fun, but it’s not book-like. And Foursquare doesn’t make the list because its literary qualities aren’t strong enough. The story it tells is only “I visited here.” And of course I’m not the mayor of either National Theatre or the Royal Opera House, because neither me nor 99.999% of the country ever go there. Instead, I go where I was going anyway, and the few thousand people who go to the National Theatre go there anyway. And one of them is the mayor on Foursquare. So rather than undermining reality and giving players the experience of imagining the world differently, Foursquare just confirms the world as it is. It might be engaging, but it has no literary qualities.
Those rules are very arbitrary. I made them up. I’d welcome any challenges to the rules, and additions to the list, which I’m really hoping isn’t anywhere near complete. Even if something breaks the rules, if it’s backed up with a good reason, I’ll add it to the list.
And so here is the list.
The Experiments and Curiosities of Portable Digital Technology Mediated Site Specific Literature:
Flirt by Dunne and Raby 1998
Using the location of the mast that your phone is connected to (cell ID), a black cat crosses the city from phone screen to phone screen, a herd of reindeer stampede across the screen or you get a kiss from a stranger.
Bot Fighters, by It’s Alive and Unwired Factory, 2001
Fire missiles by text message at nearby enemies (using cell ID again).
City Poems by Blink, 2003
Posters with keywords and a mobile phone number on allow people to receive poems by text message about the places they are in, written by other people who visit the same location. Taken together a network of these poem points make a biography of the city of Leeds navigated through its places.
murmur, by Shawn Micallef and Gabe Sawhney, 2003
A distinctive green ear-shaped street sign is mounted at each place with a story connected to it, displaying a phone number passersby can call on their mobile phones to access that location’s stories, or to leave their own. Both City Poems and murmur got over the fact that there were no GPS phones outside Japan in 2003 by marking locations with printed posters explaining how to use either text or voice calls to find stories.
34 North 118 West, by Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman, 2003
A walk round an LA neighbourhood with a GPS enabled tablet PC, uncovering fragments of local history played in your headphones, determined by your route.
Riot BBC Bristol and Mobile Bristol, 2004
By walking round a square in Bristol with headphones on, you hear fragments of the dramatised story of the riots that happened there, navigated by the changes of direction in which you choose to walk.
Coast BBC Bristol, 2004
Posters with QR codes on, fixed at points along costal walks, to let people download information about the place they are standing.
Genie by Blink, 2006
Children used a magic mirror (a tablet PC with RFID reader – RFID is the technology used in Oyster cards on the London Underground) to set free genies trapped in objects by an evil wizard and then wrote on the tablet PC in answer to creative writing questions, to replace the genies’ memories stolen by the wizard.
The Txt Bk by Mobile Radicals, 2006
A text message version of the Exquisite Corpse game, in which players at a live event take turns to make a contribution to a story by writing a text, having only seen the previous text. The completed story is then projected into the venue for the event.
Natural History Museum RFID enabled museum guide, around 2007
You get a PDA in the way you’d get an audio guide, touch the PDA against a little marker on the wall and the PDA displays information about the adjacent exhibit. Again using the same technology as London Underground Oyster cards. I feel like I should include an example of a museum guide, but I think museums have done quite a lot of this and there might be better examples. Please let me know of any in the comments.
Five Trees Forest by Blink, 2008
Sprites jump into and out of players’ mobile phones from an invisible world called the Five Trees Forest and talk to humans by sending messages that appear out of thin air (humans sometimes call them text messages). First presented as part of Sheffield Literature Festival.
Give Me Back My Broken Night by Duncan Speakman and Univited Guests, 2010
An audio track played on headphones attached to a mobile phone , and triggered by GPS as you walk around Soho, describes parts of the area in the future, then a an actor playing a guide arrives and asks you to imagine and describe what you’d like to see in future in spaces that are currently building sites. As you speak into the microphone of the headset, what you describe is drawn live and appears on the screen of the mobile you hold in front of you. This does uses an actor, but very discreetly and intimately.
Chromaroma by Mudlark, 2010
Each time you swipe your London Underground Oyster card you win points, complete missions and suffer attacks (on your points total) by leeches that live in the tunnels.
Shakespeare’s London by Vic Keegan, 2011
An iphone app using GPS to lead you round the places that were part of Shakespeare’s life or connected to his plays.
Wanderlust by Six to Start, 2011
Stories that use GPS and also a database of kinds of places, so for example you can only read the first chapter if you are in a cafe, but it can be any cafe, and the next chapter might happen in any museum.
Adelaide Road, by Aoife Mannix, Ola Animashawun, Sarah Ellis, 2011
An iphone app uses GPS to trigger voices, games and creative writing exercises connected with parts of a long London street as you stroll down it. This had a live version, with lots of actors and their atoms, but it also worked with no actors at all.
iphone app that acts as a platform to record and place audio stories of your own in specific locations for other people to find when they are in that location. Worth comparing this back to murmur in 2003.