Tim Maughan topples down the rabbit hole into a parallel Bristol
When I met Circumstance’s Duncan Speakman in the middle of Bristol’s busy town centre on a Friday evening he was standing in the middle of the road, holding an open MacBook Air. It was the night before These Pages Fall Like Ash, the latest collaboration between Circumstance and academic Tom Abba, was set to go live and he was making the final touches - in this case, wirelessly uploading text files on to a Raspberry Pi mini-computer hidden inside the window of an artisan coffee shop near Bristol’s St Nicholas market.
It wasn’t the first time I’d met Speakman - he’d introduced himself to me at the Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam back in February after I’d shown a rough cut of the Paintwork short film, and for obvious reasons I was fascinated to hear that he was working on a locative art project based in my adopted home town. More than just a piece of installation art, its main aim was to be a piece of experimental research into the future of the book in the digital age.
“The initial idea was Tom’s,” Duncan told me; “a ‘dead drop city’ of artfully discarded USB sticks with the story on.”
A £10 ticket for These Pages Fall Like Ash got you a physical product as a kicking off point; a handcrafted, wooden bound book that actually contained two volumes. The first was called Here and was about Bristol, presenting the reader with a series of stories, myths, questions and riddles about their home town. The second, There, was based around a fictitious, parallel city known as Portus, that inhabited the same physical space as Bristol but whose historical and cultural differences had been created to allow exploration of the relationship between the real and the imagined, the analogue and the digital, the printed and the remembered. “The fictional culture of Portus is one that values memory over documentation, since all documentation, whether photos or text, can be tampered with. For example, when you get a photo, you just look at it and delete it. The memory of the image is more important than the image itself.”
The stories in There were intentionally incomplete - following clues and instructions in ‘Here’ led you to various locations around the city, where more Raspberry Pi computers were installed. Using just a basic browser on a smartphone or tablet, you could view these invisible, hidden depositories and retrieve text files and images that filled in some of the blanks in the physical book.
“We restricted ourselves mainly to text, as a creative restraint more than anything, because in a digital space you can go anywhere. We decided to ‘do a book’, otherwise we would have spent too long considering all the other options - augmented reality, layered photos - and we’d never have got around to finishing anything.” Duncan went on: “We had this debate early on about how form leads content and content leads form, and we decided we wanted to do something where the technology was led by the story. More than anything it was about trying to come up with characters that live inside your head as you live your life in the city, so that you start to imagine their views of your home. The character in Portus starts seeing bits of Bristol appear in her city, and the hope is that as you go around you might start seeing bits of Portus - a parallel Bristol you didn’t know was there.”
There was also an important temporal aspect to the work, with new content coming online over the project’s three week installation. The hard drives were opened up so users could add their own content, though this wasn’t the research’s principal aim. “In early stages we were thinking, Yeah, it’ll be really open to user contribution. Then we thought, Everything is already open to user contribution - people do that everyday, and that’s not actually the the focus of the project. The focus is the physical/digital relationship. So even as we open up to digital contributions, we try and encourage analogue contributions too. You get pencil with your book and the first thing the book says is. ‘Make a mark on this page’. We want people to feel that it’s OK to do that. In both books, the last page is torn out. None of the content is locked off. Everything is open, hackable - you could copy and paste the text, re-mix it, upload it again. But we’ve not told anyone about any of that. We want to see if it just happens organically.”
It’s this experimental spirit - the fact that this was a research exercise as much as a complete piece of art - that’s perhaps the most important thing to remember when discussing These Pages Fall Like Ash. Dipping in to the project over the following weeks, it was hard not to be left with the impression that while the concept and technology were fascinating, the content itself was often less than compelling. Often, there was just too much of it: accessing each wireless point inundated you with numerous files to explore, many of them simply too long to comfortably absorb on a smartphone screen while stood in a busy street. The project’s temporal dimension was tricky, too: not fully consuming the content in the right order led to an unstructured, unsatisfying narrative experience. It’s an issue Speakman is aware of. “We’re putting it out there as a learning process for us as creators too, which is why the hype has been a bit scary. It’s an experiment guys, it might go terribly wrong! We haven’t done this before, and we don’t know any other examples of it. What we’ve learnt is what works well, what works as more than just words on the page. It was meant to be a short story, but with just the first two clusters we’re already up to 12,000 words. How people navigate this landscape will inform what we do next time.”
And next time does promise to be interesting. While These Pages Fall Like Ash might have failed to fully engage with its audience, it’s impossible not to be excited by its potential. “So the plan,” says Duncan, “is to do another physical book with digital experiences, working with established writers, to create something, a book that somehow - whether it’s via sound or text or whatever - lives off the page.”
Tom Abba and Duncan Speakman are planning to release similar projects over the coming year. Visit http://pagesfall.com/ for the latest news.