Invisible Islands – It’s a Wrap: Diary Entry #5, Bursary 2013

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Posted filed under Experience.
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The Writing Platform bursaries have come to a close. We caught up with Laura Grace and Caden Lovelace, creators of Invisible Islands.

Caden and Laura applied for The Writing Platform bursary individually and have been paired together by the selection panel who felt that their shared areas of interest, along with their enthusiasm for working with a new, previously unknown, partner would make for an exciting creative journey. You can read their project diary entries here and here.

You can hear from Writing Platform Bursary winners; actor and writer Ben Gwalchmai and poet and developer James Wheale, about the development of their mobile app Fabler here and here, and read their project wrap interview here.

What did you make and where can our readers try it out?

Visit http://invisibleislands.com/ on your mobile device of choice!

CL: We made an entire other world. It wasn’t easy, but at least we have somewhere to go now when we’re through with this one. It’s in the form of an app, though, which makes me hope that the apocalypse isn’t too wet. In any case — it’s a web-app that, with the aid of your phone’s GPS, positions you on a map of some alternate world populated by small islands with diverse cultures. It’s a travel-guide, too, so you won’t feel lost even if in fact you are.

LG: I like to call it “A fanciful real-world journey across an imaginary archipelago.” It’s a browser-based app that works on location-enabled mobile devices. The central interface is a map, overlaid on your current location, populated with mysterious islands. To visit one, you need to physically walk there. We don’t specify a route, we just tell you the distance (as the crow flies) – the idea is that you explore your location in a new way, see your environment a little differently. Think of it as a quest, an adventure.

When you reach your destination, you unlock that island’s travelogue. Each one is a self-contained narrative, a land that buffets against your real-world location, and might make you look at the world anew, transport you somewhere else, or spark your imagination.

How did you come to the idea for Invisible Islands?

LG: Well, I’m an islander (my family’s lived in the Outer Hebrides since Viking times), and I’ve always been a little obsessed with islands and, more abstractly, the idea of being islanded – by pain, by love, by isolation. Invisible Islands actually began as a self-imposed writing exercise, inspired equally by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree books (with the ever-changing magical land at the top of the titular tree).

I wrote a list of fantastical islands – The Island of Regrets, The Island of Lost Socks, The Island in the Stars, The Island of Everlasting Night, etc, and wrote 500 or so words every morning exploring what you might find if you visited each place.  As it grew, I began to see it as an interactive fiction of some kind – I liked the idea of a reader navigating a text in an unfamiliar way, stumbling across a fantastical place in an unlikely location. When Caden and I began talking about areas to explore as part of The Writing Platform bursary, the project struck a chord with both of us, and it became something even more exciting.

Laura you applied as a writer, Caden you applied as a technologist, how did you allocate the work? Were there clear delineations for who did what?

CL: Someone — I think possibly one of my art teachers at school — told me that when I was drawing something I should be spending 90% of my time with my eyes on the subject and only 10% on the paper. I don’t know about that as a rule — but in terms of collaboration it has always seemed to me that the conversation that is the bulk of the useful work, rather than the actual making. Laura and I stuck to our respective ‘making’ roles (her writing, my coding), but we shared the direction, in every sense of the word.

The most important role of the technologist is to say ‘yes, this is possible’ rather than ‘no, this is too hard / too much work’ (almost always meaning ‘I don’t know how’) — upon this hinges the quality and power of the result. I’m certainly not claiming to have never said the latter in the course of this project! But hopefully I’ve said ‘it’s possible’ enough to have brought out the idea.

LG: We spent a good while throwing around ideas and points of inspiration – writers we liked, shared interests. That made narrowing in on a shared vision much easier. I work with technologists on a daily basis so we had plenty of common ground when it came to mapping out the user experience, but Caden was definitely the voice of reason when it came to defining what was achievable within our limited timescale (working around day jobs, etc).

 You didn’t know each other before the bursary, how was it collaborating with a stranger? Did it differ to your previous experiences of collaboration? And would you work together again?

CL: Certainly. In my experience many collaborative projects fizzle out before they even get started! To take this one to some degree of ‘completion’ is certainly exciting and valuable, and no small amount due to knowing that The Writing Platform were keeping track of our progress (in a benevolent way, of course!)

It was quite interesting, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also slightly intimidating, to be doing the whole ‘getting to know’ process simultaneous with the idea forming and building processes. When I’m acting in a ‘technologist’ role I am very eager to please — perhaps even too eager at times, and trying to work out what sort of ideas Laura would be interested in without knowing her at all was certainly challenging! But I feel like we came to a mutually interesting idea, which is positive.

LG: It was a great experience – I think we were well-matched in terms of interests and approach. I actually found that getting thrown in the deep end – in terms of getting stuck into collaborating together – was a really effective away to get the project moving. Working with friends, or even colleagues, can be tricky – an existing relationship brings a certain amount of baggage, and it can be harder to negotiate ownership of a project or an idea. With the bursary, we were both bringing very different skills to our project, and making something that scratched a creative itch for both us was very much the focus. I think it worked really well. And I’d be happy to work together again, particularly in developing Invisible Islands beyond the MVP it is now.

The period the bursary covered is over, do you have further plans for developing Invisible Islands?

CL: The next step from my perspective is to put it into the form of an app rather than a website-for-phones. There’s very little difference really, but I suppose it is similar to the difference between paperback and hardback books — a feeling of ‘value’ or ‘quality’. Aside from this, there’s plenty of edge-cases to be taken care of and bugs to be ironed out. One of the tricky things about working with locative media and also with mobile devices is that it’s difficult to test it yourself — chances are all of the people who use this will be using it in situations that I haven’t!

LG: As Caden says, I think native app functionality would bring a lot to this project – for example, a thoughtful implementation of unobtrusive push notifications would work really well. In terms of the narrative, I’d really like this to be a project that evolves over the longer term. The possibilities for island destinations are pretty much infinite! Also, from the start it’s been an ambition of mine to include a collaborative element to the narrative itself – I love the idea of anyone being able to contribute island reports, and incorporating that into the text as it grows.

What’s next for each of you – any projects we should be keeping our eyes peeled for?

CL: Always, too many! I’m currently working on a project for a week long ‘tumblr-residency’ at the Internet Archive early next year (you can follow here) involving archaic MS-DOS interfaces. As well as this I’m planning the next phase of my avant-publishing project $5 Words and performing with Jerome Fletcher at the Electronic Literature Organisation conference, Paris, in late September.

If you like ‘weird twitter’ you can follow me at @neoeno and if you like ‘weird facebook’ you can follow me at fb.me/neoeno.

LG: Loads! But, most recently I’ve been working on a cross-platform TV pilot (with Doctor Who writer Stephen Greenhorn), funded by Creative Scotland and Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. It’s about hackers and rural murders and is pretty action-packed.

I’m also delving into something a little different at the moment – a line of bath products (really) that have been developed around the idea of brand storytelling as non-linear narrative, products that tell a story and offer a shared sensory experience. This was a personal project that has become an internal venture with Mint Digital. I’m really excited to see how it evolves!

I’m on that Twitter too – I’m @usherette.

@neoeno

@usherette


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