A Short History of Location-based Writing

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Imagine a narrative woven through a city street. As a reader you can access fragments of story by navigating a physical space using a digital device such as a smartphone or tablet.  As you walk past a library, you might be told about the history of the books inside. Walking part a church might trigger the sound of a congregation singing together. An abandoned building might tell you about all the generations of people who have lived and worked inside. You might even be encouraged to contribute something in response to what you experience.

Location-based or geo-locative writing connects a reader directly to a story as their movements through a physical space allow them to access pieces of narrative. These don’t have to be read as words on a screen. They can be audio, visual or take the form of interactive games. The possibilities of this site-specific digital form are endless. Stories can be created, worlds can be built and we can be encouraged to look at the world around us in new ways.

Such location-based narratives, which are born from experiences of physical spaces, can be participatory. Using GPS technologies, a reader’s movements can be mapped. The story they are told can be influenced by the direction they take. The reader can be invited to take part by interacting creatively with a story. They might be prompted to contribute a piece of text, a memory, a snapshot. The experience is typically non-linear as this is an experience across real-world locations.

By setting a narrative in the physical world, a reader pulled in two directions. What they see in front of they and the story they are told brings a rich new perspective to navigating space. The real and imagined are brought together and begin to overlap and blur. This adds a new element to storytelling, which writers have begun to explore. Several projects have been developed over the past ten years to experiment with the potential of this digital-born form;

34 North, 118 West

34 North 118 West was created by Los Angeles artists in 2003. They took users on tours of areas of Los Angeles, focusing on the fringes of the city. As abandoned areas were explored, users received fragments of audio to their headphones via GPS.

[Murmur]

Launched in 2003, [Murmur], is a location-based audio project, was developed by a Toronto based collective. A person’s location triggers stories collected from other users and residents. The experience is one of accessing multiple layers of stories embedded in the city streets.

Urban Tapestries

Urban Tapestries was designed to help people to create their own annotations of a city. Social knowledge is shared, stories are told and an archive of collective memory is built. These fragments can be accessed while walking through a city’s streets using hand-held devices.

The Silent History

Launched in 2012, this novel, written for the iPad and iPhone, offers readers a chance to immerse themselves in a story. It includes hundreds of location-based stories, which can only be accessed when a device’s GPS matches the coordinates of a specified location.

My Story

Launched in 2013, MyStory takes users on a self-guided literary tour of Melbourne. Stories are experienced in the locations where they were set, building a literary map of the city.

These Pages Fall Like Ash

This project, launched in 2013, invited an audience to participate in a narrative experience by accessing, altering and writing a locative story.

Adelaide Road

Using Shakespeare’s As You Like It as inspiration, the Royal Shakespeare Company created a journey along Adelaide Road in London in 2013, which explored the themes of love, betrayal, exile and home in the 21st century. Users could interact with the project through an iPhone app and a web map.

Writer on the Train

This project, launched in 2013, explores the potential of using a train journey to tell location-based stories. An app responded to the readers’ train journey in real time, delivering elastic pacing, video, audio and new writing relevant to the train’s location.

Missorts

Missorts is an urban soundwork delivered directly to a smartphone as a mobile app as a user walks though Bristol, UK. It combines ten location-triggered stories with a newly composed soundtrack.

Zombies, Run!

Launched in 2012, this app combines elements of game and storytelling to create an epic zombie adventure.

Amy Spencer is a writer and creative writing tutor. She holds a PhD from Goldsmiths, where her research focused on collaborative authorship in digital literature. She is the author of DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture and The Crafter Culture Handbook