The cultural politics of pervasive drama: aural narrative, digital media and re-compositions of urban space

Eva Giraud

This article conceptualises the auditory politics of pervasive drama, focusing on the potential for aural narrative to facilitate critical engagements with public space. In doing so, it develops two bodies of research related to the use of aural narrative in digital arts projects: Firstly, it builds on work that has emphasised the “productive listening potentials” of these narratives (Anderson 2012) by exploring specific ways in which pervasive drama can generate imaginative connections between people and place. Through analysing The Memory Dealer’s (TMD) narrative content and players’ engagement with this content, the article illustrates how pervasive drama can both reveal the complex power relations shaping urban space and counter the commercial rhythms that shape this space on an everyday basis. The article then, secondly, develops existing theoretical understandings of personal auditory technologies. It does this by drawing on TMD focus group discussions and observations of players’ engagements with technology during performances to argue that pervasive drama’s listening potentials can only be grasped through examining the active role of the technologies disseminating these narratives. The overarching argument, which links these issues together, is that pervasive drama can imbue everyday locations with new, politicised, meaning, but that this potential is not confined to the narrative and is also generated by the technologies used to disseminate it. Throughout the article, therefore, references to the politics of pervasive drama are intended to characterise this relation between aural narrative, auditory technologies and critical engagements with space.

These arguments critically engage with Marc Tuters’ call for theories of locative-media to move beyond conceptual frameworks grounded in Situationism, which focus on the capacity of digital arts projects to defamiliarize urban space (Tuters 2012). [1] These Situationist-inspired frameworks understand uses of auditory technologies in projects such as soundwalks or location-based games as having the ability to defamiliarize locations by making everyday spaces strange. Such frameworks, furthermore, contend that this process of defamiliarization has a distinct cultural politics, by highlighting – and creating space to criticise – the commercial or governmental forces shaping public space (Butler 2006a, 2006b). These arguments, however, have faced a backlash due to the rise in commercial games that have borrowed the playful attributes of these arts projects but harnessed them to make a profit, “with location-based services becoming a key tool in a corporate strategy to re-imagine the city and ‘the social’ in terms of ‘gamification’” (Tuters 2012: 269). In other words, for Tuters, the creative and oppositional potential of pervasive media has been co-opted for commercial ends, and he suggests that alternative frameworks (grounded in actor-network theory) should be employed instead, to emphasise the active role of the technologies used in these projects.

Unlike Tuters I argue that defamiliarization is still a useful framework for conceptualising pervasive drama, but this needs to be coupled with further consideration of technological agency. From the actor-network theory perspective that Tuters is drawing on, agency does not have to imply intentionality; when the agency of auditory technology is referred to, this does not mean that these technologies have anything akin to a subjective intention to shape movement in particular ways. For actor-network theory (ANT), agency “is decoupled from criteria of intentionality, subjectivity and free-will” (Sayes 2013: 141) and, instead, refers to anything that has the “ability to make a difference” in social reality (Latour 2005: 130; Sayes 2013: 141). Rather than equating agency with a specific type of (human) action that is intentional, an ANT framework thus “dehumanizes” it. In line with this argument, as everyday technologies are important actors in constituting our lived experience, they can be considered to have agency. In simple terms this means that people cannot bend technology to their will, but neither does technology determine human action: culture is instead co-produced through human-technology interactions. [2] While ANT is not adopted here as a wholescale theoretical framework, its understanding of technological agency is nonetheless important in creating space to reflect on auditory technologies’ productive role in the dynamic between players, drama and public space (without assuming this role to be deterministic). In line with Tuters’s own arguments, therefore, I contend that auditory technologies should be understood not just as passive mediators between players and narrative but as actively “re-composing” space (Tuters 2012: 271) in ways that defamiliarize it.

To develop its arguments, the article initially establishes the critical context of pervasive drama projects by setting out wider tensions that have been identified between the creative potential of sound art and the commercial qualities of mobile auditory technologies. It then goes into more depth as to why sound-art has been seen as defamiliarizing urban space, before examining how these processes of defamiliarization work in the context of pervasive drama specifically: focusing on the way such projects can disrupt the “linear rhythms” of capitalist modernity (Lefebvre 2004: 8) through facilitating what Toby Butler describes as “semi-dérives” or drifts through urban space that are not for a purely instrumental purpose but foster attunement to the immediate environment (Butler 2006a: 892). The focus then turns to the more ambivalent role of the auditory technologies used in the drama, informed by Michael Bull’s examination of the way such technologies simultaneously reinforce the logic of consumer capital and create space for “oppositional, creative and pleasurable” engagements with public space (Bull 2004: 346). I finally suggest that pervasive drama has the capacity to creatively exploit this ambivalence, using focus group findings to illustrate how critical reflection on everyday uses of digital media was generated in TMD in several ways: Through people’s engagements with the technologies themselves, through what Sarah Barns describes as the cultures of “listening practices” generated by pervasive drama (Barns 2014: 7), and through the creative way that the auditory technologies themselves re-composed public space.

[1] Media that uses geo-locative technologies to pin-point players’ locations; more recently this has been popularised further by Facebook’s ‘check in’ option. Though TMD itself does not use GPS Tuters’s arguments about the agency of technology are still relevant to this discussion, in light of both the broader criticisms he levels at uses of digital media in arts projects as well as the distinct ways that the auditory technologies in TMD shape people’s engagements with space.

[2] Although the focus here is on technology, it is not only technological artefacts that are considered “actors” with agency: to reiterate Latour, anything that makes a difference is an actor.

Contextualising the Politics of Pervasive Drama


From sound art to “gamification”

“You’re going to meander”

Resonating with the opening monologue of TMD, sound art that uses personal auditory technologies has been framed as politically significant, firstly, in making seemingly “unremarkable” locations meaningful (Butler 2006a, 2006b) and, secondly, in countering economic imperatives (such as speed and efficiency) that have transformed urban space into something that is simply passed through by commuters, rather than something that could be paid attention to in its own right (Barns 2014). Location-based gaming has also attempted to transform the meaning of urban space, with games such as Foursquare and Chromaroma turning everyday routines (from getting coffee at your local café to using public transport) into more playful experiences. [3] Rather than countering economic logic, however, these projects have been seen as extending it by transforming even our movements to and from work (or between more leisurely locations) into something that can generate revenue for commercial games companies (Cohen 2013). This has, retroactively, led to uses of personal auditory technologies within artistic projects being seen as perpetuating this commercial logic of “gamification” (Tuters 2012: 269). These debates raise an interesting set of questions for pervasive drama, which draws together elements of sound art, on the one hand, and location-based gaming on the other (Benford and Gianacci 2011; Evans this issue, 2014b). In light of these debates, the central question to address seems to be whether pervasive drama can revitalise sound art’s capacity to give meaning to – or even politicise – urban space (as the above extract from The Memory Dealer suggests), or if its use of commercial auditory technologies illustrates Tuters’s arguments about the commodification of creativity. I suggest, however, that this is the wrong question to ask, as pervasive drama cannot be categorised in line with accounts of either politicisation or commodification offered by conceptualisations of these more theorised media. Instead, the medium can actively combat the commercialisation of public space, not only by employing narrative to foster imaginative engagements with the locations in which it is set, but by employing technology to re-compose this space in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

The political potentials of pervasive drama: playing with tensions

Location-based sound art projects (and soundwalks in particular) have been framed as politically radical due to generating awareness about the histories of, memories associated with, and contemporary political contexts of specific locations (Butler 2006a, 2006b; Anderson 2012; Barns 2014). By using mobile technologies to map personal testimony, narrative and oral history onto urban space, artists such as Active Ingredient, Blast Theory, Janet Cardiff and Butler himself have, arguably, facilitated connections between audience and space that transform everyday locations (such as stations, footpaths and even motorways) into meaningful places with rich socio-cultural histories. These projects have proven pertinent to theories of everyday life (as in Highmore, 2002), because of their capacity to defamiliarize sites and practices that have become so mundane – or, to derive a term from Georges Perec (Perec 2003), infraordinary – that it is no longer possible to even notice them, let alone ask questions about their cultural and political significance. For these theorists, the value of noticing the everyday is not simply the romantic notion of appreciating the world around you, but has a distinct cultural politics:

In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t a “matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (Perec 2003: 177)

Art has long been cited as a means of “defamiliarizing” the everyday to ask questions about its political significance (Shklovsky 2003), so for this reason location-based sound art has been positioned as part of a lineage of artistic movements (such as Surrealism and Situationism) that defamiliarize urban space by intervening in it in unexpected ways (Butler 2006a: 893). The opening extract from TMD suggests that pervasive drama has potential to – like sound art – make visible the “fabric of the world” that we no longer notice, due to over-familiarly and repetition (in the manner suggested by Shklovsky and Perec). Isobel Anderson (Anderson 2012) argues, moreover, that narrative has a unique capacity to make places meaningful by asking people to make their own imaginative connections between the fictional narrative and “real” urban space over which this narrative is overlaid, thus producing more active engagements between participants and public space.

Narrative is no guarantee of political engagement; indeed, it has been used to the opposite effect within commercial projects that seek to “gamify” the city (de Souza e Silva and Frith 2012), with many story-based games treating locations as incidental backdrops (the idea being that their narrative can transform any location into a game-space). What Anderson and Butler emphasise, however, is the critical potential of narrative to facilitate sustained engagement with the specificities of the sites in which the drama unfolds, and it is this potential that pervasive drama has the capacity to develop. As will be discussed in depth subsequently, focus group findings from TMD bear out these arguments by foregrounding how the drama opened political questions through this process of defamiliarizing the taken-for-granted and explicitly asking players to pay attention to their environment (with the narrative content generating debate about urban space and everyday uses of smartphones and auditory technologies).

A different set of issues are raised by the playful aspects of TMD and pervasive drama more broadly: the capacity of sound-art to politicize urban space is in stark contrast with the more critical allegations of “gamification” (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled and Nacke 2011) that have been levelled at location-based gaming, where everyday activities are allegedly commodified through being made “playable” via smart-phone applications (allowing companies to profit from activities that people would be doing anyway, or gather data about individuals to foster more targeted forms of marketing; Barreneche 2012). As touched on above, games such as Foursquare, for instance, have been accused of commodifying everyday routines (Tuters 2012: 269). Rather than these tensions undermining the creative potential of pervasive drama, however, I argue that it is this friction between commercial and narrative elements of these projects that enable them to defamiliarize urban space so effectively. In using characteristics associated with commercial technologies to defamiliarize everyday uses of these technologies, such projects resonate with the Situationist notion of detournement (where imagery associated with commercial culture is “turned against it” to prompt critical reflection). Indeed, in the case of TMD, these tensions actually accentuate the political questions raised by the drama, which relate to social dependence on technology and the commodification of everyday life. Before developing these arguments in more depth though, it is necessary to get a more general sense of exactly how this process of defamiliarization occurs.

[3] Foursquare is a game where people are awarded points for people doing everyday activities, such as visiting restaurants or venues. When arriving at a location, you can “check in” virtually with players who frequent these locations the most times becoming their online “mayor” (see Aplin and Fisher 2011). Chromaroma is a game that uses Oyster-Card data (taken from London commuters’ travel cards) to create a competition from people’s everyday commutes (for a brief discussion of this and other similar games, see Literat 2011).


Making space meaningful

Frameworks for analysing mobile devices’ impact on experiences of the city – in relation to both sound art and individuals’ engagements with auditory technologies – are often grounded in a critical-theoretical tradition, which emphasises the relationships between soundscapes, rhythm and capital (e.g. Thibaud 2011; Hallam 2012; Barns 2014). Such perspectives have explicitly focused on the relationships between place, on the one hand (culturally specific, meaningful locations that are given their resonance by people’s engagement with them), and space, on the other (thought of in more abstract, general, terms as the environments these interactions occur within). In line with these arguments, abstract spaces are transformed into meaningful places by the assemblages of entities that interact with them in specific geographical locations (Arkette 2004: 160). A central theme of sound art projects has been to use aural or oral narrative to make seemingly mundane locations meaningful: effectively turning abstract space into meaningful place (Butler 2006a, 2006b; Anderson 2012). This could occur, for instance, by telling stories about particular sites, to give a sense of the specific cultural meanings people have attached to them. This characteristic is shared by TMD, which populates the area around Bristol harbour with fictional encounters and memories of the site – as one player describes, transforming the area into a “memory space” (SAI3) – illustrating how pervasive drama can encourage the transformation of urban space into meaningful place.

These attempts to create meaningful place were acknowledged by audiences, who frequently described the opening section as their favourite part of the drama:

I really liked the first 15 minutes, I didn’t expect it … at first I was like, “oh can I go and get a cider” … but then it grabbed me. The voice was fantastic, and I have got a lot of memories from that area, and when it said, “oh this is where you first met her”, I was in the middle of the bridge, and I thought, “yes this is a good meeting place” … (FRJ2)

I liked the setting of the scene, so how we had to start to think of our own memories as Eve was introduced. (SAB1)

There was quite a nice coincidence, which was when you were asked to remember your first memories, and a small child ran into me, and there was actually something quite nice about that. So it is nice about what the, you know, what the real location means to the … coincidences like that. (SAB2)

These artistic engagements have a clearly defined cultural politics, in light of theoretical arguments that have suggested places are often stripped of their meaning by rhythms fostered by commercial imperatives (Bull 2004, 2007). Architectural arrangements, commercial uses of public space and wider urban infrastructures (from roads to public transport systems) are seen as materializing capitalist social relations within specific sites (Merrifield 1993), with these arrangements shaping people’s movements in order to maximise efficient use of this space. Individuals, however, do not always adhere to movements mapped out for them, indeed, central to the work of theorists such as Michel de Certeau (who has been pivotal to analyses of sound art, auditory technologies and everyday theory more broadly) is the argument that people are constantly negotiating (or even resisting) these structures in complex ways (De Certeau 1984: 91–110). This is crystallised by de Certeau’s distinction between strategies (overarching rules imposed on particular spaces that encourage certain forms of navigating them, for example, those imposed by infrastructure such roads and traffic systems) and tactics (the way that individuals actually behave in these spaces, which does not always adhere to these rules, for instance, crossing the road at a point other than a pedestrian crossing) (de Certeau 1984: 29–42). It is this form of everyday, microsociological, resistance that pervasive drama has the capacity to accentuate, by inserting more personal and individualised experiences into these spaces that cut across everyday commercial rhythms.

In TMD, players discussed how particular prompts in the narrative were especially useful in forging these connections: “[when the narrative said] ‘Oh look at that rooftop’, and you pick one in your surroundings, and you look at it and, or ‘see that man over there’, and so you’re always connecting yourself with what the script is telling you to do” (FRA1). While players’ accounts of the drama point to the power of “pervasive sound narratives”  to create individualised connections with place in the manner suggested by Anderson, the drama’s use of narrative also complicates the everyday urban rhythms that the players experience as they simultaneously negotiate “real-life” spaces and aural narrative.

Lefebvrian concepts of rhythm are frequently used to tease out this dynamic between the rhythms fostered by sound art and the everyday rhythms that resonate within public space. Although Lefebvre’s concept of rhythm is not purely aural, it does stress the importance of sonic experience (Thibaud 2011), hence his work has been drawn on to, on the one hand, illuminate the role of sound in reinforcing the urban social order (Bull 2004) but, on the other, to explore how artistic practice and individual auditory experiences (such as the use of mobile technologies, iPods and Walkmen) could intervene in these cultural rhythms (Bull 2004, 2007; Beer 2007; Barns 2014).

Countering linear rhythms

Lefebvre characterises “linear rhythms” as the rhythms of capital, regulating movement in line with the demands of the economic system and cutting across both bodily rhythms and the “cosmic rhythms” of the natural world (Lefebvre 2004: 8). This is manifested in the most pronounced way in urban space, where rush hours, commuter movement, traffic flow, public transport – and the working day in general – explicitly foster certain movements which are, in turn, regulated by the urban infrastructure to maximise economic efficiency. These rhythms have been framed as intensely alienating, both by Lefebvre himself and thinkers who have explicitly drawn on his work to emphasise the role of sound in this process (Amin and Thrift 2002; Binnie, Edensor, Holloway, Millington and Young 2007). It is this sense of alienation that is captured throughout The Memory Dealer, as it draws attention to the cultural impact of auditory technologies (specifically their potential to isolate) not only within the narrative itself, but through using these technologies to disseminate this narrative.

“You don’t like this area”

This image of isolated and addicted users of digital media, who are entirely disconnected from their environs, resonates with Bull’s argument that urban soundscapes can lead to familiar locations becoming “non-places”. He challenges Marc Augé’s characterisation of non-places as the anonymous, globalised spaces of capitalist modernity (such as motorway services stations and airports) (Augé 1995), by arguing that everyday linear rhythms imposed by the working day can transform any site into a meaningless non-place (Bull 2004, 2007). As people move through the city on their way to work, being forced to adhere to the linear rhythms imposed by economic forces, locations become increasingly infraordinary; indeed, it is this process of place being stripped of meaning that is foregrounded by the opening of TMD: “now that you think about it you realise you often walk around without ever seeing where you are. Rushing on with your life, the fabric of the world all but invisible” (Lander 2013).

To an extent these arguments draw on a tradition of Marxist thought that has pointed to the pervasively alienating effects of modernity, in particular its technologically-mediated sounds. For instance, in addition to sounds that reinforce the rhythms of the working day (factory bells, traffic, alarm clocks), Adorno and Horkheimer (in)famously argue that sounds produced by the Culture Industry have a purely ideological function, regulating leisure time to ready consumers for the working day (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997). These criticisms of mediated soundscapes have been extended to encompass the rise in personal auditory technologies, which have more recently been accused of reinforcing the possessive-individualism that underpins consumer-capitalism, by replacing communal soundscapes with “auditory bubbles” (Bull 2004: 344; see also Bassett 2003: 344; Tonkiss 2003: 305).

These perspectives directly map onto contemporary criticisms of “gamification”, which allege that location-based gaming regulates individual engagements with public space still further, by proscribing how these engagements should take place and what meaning is ascribed to them. Games could be seen as privatising public space in an even more explicit way than listening to music, through turning everyday meandering movements through these spaces into quantifiable (and even competitive) rhythms in a way that makes creative engagement with these spaces difficult. Gamification, in other words, instigates what Tuters describes as a “bottom-up” form of control on everyday movement (Tuters 2012: 269). TMD indicates, however, that playful uses of these technologies are not intrinsically reifying, and when integrated into a dramatic context they can instead create meaningful engagements with the city:

… you are just there listening, and you just become, talk your way over everything that’s going on around you in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily if you were just going for a walk down harbour side. (SAJ6)

It really set the scene, like the first bit, where you went to the opposite side of the harbour, before all the [inaudible] It really relaxed you, and it really got you into the scene. And then later on, when I was walking up the hill to the dentist, and you’ve got her thoughts going round your head and it’s very busy, then the music goes loud as well and it kind of enhances that busy-ness. (SAJ4)

These focus group discussions, in other words, highlight how aural narrative can complicate existing urban rhythms and draw attention to place rather than distracting from it. Such an analysis resonates with more nuanced arguments put forward by Lefebvre and de Certeau, which foreground that how people act in public space does not necessarily conform to strategies or linear rhythms imposed from “top-down”. Unlike Adorno’s analysis of commercial media, Lefebvre’s concept of rhythm contains space for resistance to commercial logic, by foregrounding that everyday life contains contradictions that can be highlighted and used as the foundation for political reflection and critique (Edensor 2012; Revill 2013). This has been the starting point for theorists analysing the ambivalence of sound-art, gaming and auditory technologies themselves, who both acknowledge these technologies’ potential to regulate and commodify everyday tactics, whilst also foregrounding their capacity to foster engagements with space that disrupt these alienating effects. As Bull argues: “the partly illusory or compensatory factor in the above experiences [of listening to music] does not detract from the fact that these experiences still might be understood as oppositional, creative and pleasurable”, pointing to the “power of music in enabling iPod users to construct meaningful and pleasurable narratives out of the routine linear and cyclical practices of their everyday movement through the city” (Bull 2004: 346).

Bull’s argument has parallels with the practices encouraged by TMD, which actively attempts to challenge linear rhythms by using mobile auditory technologies to foster new forms of movement. As one player notes, “it was quite nice to move around Bristol slowly” (FRA2); indeed, the narrative actively fosters slow movement to counter the fast flow of commuters and (on the Saturday) busy pace of market traders within the location by asking players to “stroll”, “meander” and repeatedly pause to take in their surroundings (Lander 2013). In addition to countering linear rhythms, the narrative also encourages players to pay attention to everyday creative engagements with public space; at one point, for instance, it describes a game played between the narrator and Eve that had the direct purpose of defamiliarizing the environment:

“As you stroll you find yourself noticing”

Again players suggested that these moments fostered engagement with place:

I really enjoyed the start because when … because I have done that kind of game when someone says “oh look at him, he is a … I bet he is a wild card at the weekends”, the sort of businessman will come along or something, and so that was really nice. So when the voice was saying, “stop and look up at this building”, I was by the [inaudible] and I was just like oh [inaudible] so at that point I was really immersed in it you know? (SAA1)

Not only did the drama encourage more meaningful engagement with place, therefore, but it drew attention to everyday – micro-sociological – forms of resistance that did not conform to commercial rhythms. These forms of negotiation are complex, however, in simultaneously being creative forms of engagement, but creativity that is engineered by the narrative, resonating with Bull’s arguments that personal auditory technologies simultaneously encourage conformity to commercial rhythms whilst offering opportunities for creative, meaningful and pleasurable forms of resistance.

Semi Dérives

Resistance to commercial or linear rhythm has often been framed in relation to Situationist theory, notably Guy Debord’s theory of the dérive, which describes a mode of movement where people “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord 1956). This type of movement has been seen as holding potential – in artistic contexts – to act as a counterpoint to the alienating effects of city life and alleged encroachment of commercial media on the senses (Edensor 2010), which has led to a number of sound-art theorists examining the aural dimension of this form of psychogeography. Butler suggests, for instance, that sound-walks can facilitate “semi-dérives”, by encouraging “drifts” through the city that foster imaginative engagements with urban space (Butler 2006: 892).

This occurs throughout TMD when players are encouraged to engage with their surroundings by making their own connections with the city. As discussed in the previous section, during the opening twenty minutes they are allowed to wander wherever they want, whilst listening to the narrative, before receiving a more directive set of instructions to go to a particular site where they meet the first “real-life” actor. This apparent freedom, however, is countered by the purposive function of this part of the narrative, which serves to contextualise the drama, leading to productive tensions between “freedom” and directed behaviour. This is illustrated by the moment when players are asked to imagine their first meeting with the protagonist (Eve):

“You stop walking”

Again, the juxtaposition of fictional narrative with the physical space of Bristol (as elaborated on by Evans this issue) means that players do not just experience the narrative itself, but must actively make connections with the city in order to participate in the story. In this instance, players are encouraged to pick their own choice of buildings as the locus for memories of Eve. Fiction, therefore, drives these connections with place and – unlike oral histories – audience participation is integral to the experience, as the audience themselves have to select aspects of the cityscape to link these memories to, rather than being relayed pre-existing memories/histories of particular sites. This dimension of the performance was stressed by players within the focus groups: “I like just being in a, you know, familiar city, but experiencing something very different” (FRA1); “yeah, looking at the city through, somewhere that’s familiar to you through different eyes, that’s fun” (FRA3). “When he was talking about when he first met her, himself, you kind of, you kind of try to tally up with your own memories” (FRC1). The semi-dérive is what secures this imaginative engagement, as it means players select their own part of the landscape to situate these memories, arriving at different places in different times, rather than being told “where” to look. The concept of the semi-dérive also captures the tensions in this process, however, as even though audience members have a degree of agency and are encouraged to make their own connections with the landscape, the narrative itself frames and guides these relations. These tensions were reflected by the focus groups, where certain players acknowledged connections with place but also stressed their awareness of the limitations of their freedom:

I’d have liked generally to be given completely free reign to go and explore stuff, or constrained and it’s quite obvious what to do next … It left me slightly tense going through it, hoping I was doing the right thing or picking up the right ideas rather than just being able to relax into it. (FRA4)

Rather than framing these tensions as “problematic”, though, it is informative to reflect on the value of such frictions in defamiliarizing the everyday in creative and politically productive ways. For Lefebvre, the alienating effects of linear rhythms can only be challenged once these rhythms are “made visible”, and I suggest that the complex negotiation between fictional and “real-life” memories, or directed and free movement, is valuable in enabling players to do this. This argument will be developed in more depth shortly but, to address it, it is informative to flesh out the role of auditory technologies more specifically.

Playing with listening cultures

Auditory technologies and place

The productive political potential of these tensions – between fiction and “reality”, freedom and constraint – is most apparent when examining the way that pervasive drama re-composes existing listening cultures. Examining how memory is performed in TMD helps to illuminate these issues; it is important to note, though, that memory is an important component of sound art more generally, and its conceptual significance extends beyond the specific content of this particular project. Memory is a central theme, for instance, in analyses of sound art that have focused more broadly on projects that use auditory technologies to map oral histories onto specific locations. In analysing soundwalks Butler argues for the connections between memory and place, pointing to the capacity of oral histories to illuminate these relations due to the ability of “spoken memory to make connections with other times, symbols and places” (Butler 2006a: 894). Significantly, he contends that memory is not stable but performative, with soundwalks not just relaying others’ memories but encouraging participants to enact them by moving through the locations at stake, guided by auditory technologies. Dubbing these processes “memoryscapes”, he suggests that “locating memories really can make the landscape sing” (Butler 2006a: 904). What is notable here, however, is not simply this argument that mediated memory gives the landscape meaning, but the emphasis on memory as being constructed through the relationships fostered between place, technologically-disseminated narrative and participants, relationships that are reiterated within the opening narrative of TMD:

I liked the philosophical level of the idea of memories and being in a place and it was thoughtful and it kind of created a space where you actually are engaging with the thoughts, kind of like reading a book rather than, you know. (FRI3)

This reflection resonates with a range of thinkers who have argued that sound has a pivotal role in the construction of memory. Fran Tonkiss, for instance, argues that certain acoustic arrangements, fostered by architecture, can reinforce linear urban rhythms. She suggests, however, that these urban soundscapes reveal a series of tensions between the “discordant rhythms of the city” and the “acoustic order” that is strategically encouraged by architecture and urban infrastructure (Tonkiss 2003: 304). This intersects with Anderson’s argument that – in parallel with the distinction between abstract space and meaningful place – urban sound cultures are not wholly determined by the built environment but by those populating this environment (Anderson 2012). Barns develops a similar line of thought, pointing out that soundscape studies are “implicitly concerned with the very shaping of spatiality not as a ‘container for action’ but as it is enacted as an everyday, embodied and highly mediated experience” (Barns 2014: 8). These accounts of soundscapes, therefore, understand space as being co-produced (as meaningful place) by people’s engagements with it, with sound holding an important role in shaping experience and constructing memories of site.

These arguments highlight the importance of historicising experiences of place, in relation to the shifting listening cultures that shape urban soundscapes; as Barns suggests: “auditory spatial experience [is] co-constituted by the shifting technological innovations of modernity and their cultures of listening practice” (Barns 2014: 12). These evolving auditory cultures, therefore, shape how people engage with soundscapes (and, in turn, experience place). Sensory experience of place is thus shaped both by the dominant listening culture and individuals’ specific engagements with this culture, and such experiences create a complex dynamic between individual and communal experience. What this points to is the importance of foregrounding the active role of auditory technologies in constructing sound cultures (and hence specific experiences and memories of place) at particular historical junctures.

Contemporary urban experience, for instance, is characterised by tensions between individual uses of auditory technologies and the communal soundscapes of the city (Arkette 2004). What is significant about pervasive drama is that it actively plays with these tensions, by using technologies associated with individual forms of media consumption (such as headphones and smartphones) to engender communal engagements with the narrative and, in turn, the locations in which this narrative unfolds. This potential for playful engagement has been discussed more broadly in relation to sound art practice (Butler 2006a: 898), but is significant in relation to this concept of listening cultures – particularly in light of Evans’s arguments about the literacies of pervasive sound narratives.  Evans points out that the “combination of different ways of storytelling” that occur within pervasive drama require shifts between different types of media literacy (some of which were more familiar, whilst others required more novel engagements “based around movement and interaction”).

Evans’s arguments are not just relevant to analyses of the literacies required by specific media forms, however, but resonate with wider shifts in cultural expectations about how we aurally engage with our environment. This was reflected by our observations of players in their engagements with the “real life” actors, where they were forced to improvise with listening tactics (deciding, for instance, whether to leave one or both headphones in or remove them entirely), when they shifted from listening to the narrative to speaking with actors (for further discussion of this see Evans in this issue). Moments in the narrative where individuals could work together or collectively engage with spaces or performers, similarly, prompted shifts in expected modes of listening, where the individualising associations of headphone-use could be subverted. Instead of understanding these negotiations or points of tension as problematic, therefore, they could be perceived as another means of defamiliarizing space and sensory experience in a manner that invites critical reflection. In engendering constant shifts between different listening cultures or communal versus collective engagement, pervasive drama operates in a tension zone where these traits are not allowed to congeal as the “right” way of approaching things (for further development of this argument see Giraud in press). I suggest, moreover, that this quality of pervasive drama is integral to its capacity to defamiliarize urban space in ways that not only make it meaningful but prompt critical reflection.

Re-composing space as meaningful place

In pervasive drama, defamiliarization does not only occur, therefore, because the narrative is directing people to attune themselves to their surroundings (even though focus groups suggested this did enhance the defamiliarizing capacity of TMD); the use of personal auditory technologies to disseminate this narrative can also re-shape space in unexpected ways. While pervasive sound narratives can encourage semi-derivés, the auditory technologies themselves can be seen as another source of detournement due to opening space to reflexively criticise these technologies’ use in everyday life. Echoing Tuters’s arguments, the agency of the technologies used in the drama need to be taken into account. However, while he focuses on geo-locative technologies’ ability to transform conceptions and experiences of space, in the context of pervasive drama, technological agency lies in the capacity of digital media to defamiliarize.

Like theorizations of sound art, debates surrounding the role of auditory technologies in soundscapes emphasise the ambivalent role of these technologies. As touched on previously, personal technologies – from iPods and Walkmen (Bull 2004, 2007) to mobile phones (Thibaud 2003) – have been framed as undermining communal soundscapes. Arkette characterises this negatively as marking “a growing schism between what we see and what we hear” (Arkette 2004: 164), which separates us from our aural context (and potentially also from the sense of community fostered by this context). Other thinkers (Beer 2007; Bull 2007) foreground how these technologies could – conversely – facilitate more complex or creative engagements with space. Barns points out, moreover, that technologies have always been part of urban soundscapes (Barns 2014: 7–8), situating anxieties over them within a lineage of moral panics attached to urban noise (see also Mansell 2014).

As discussed previously, Bull synthesises these lines of argument by stressing the increasing privatization and individualisation that these trends herald, whilst drawing attention to the contradictory nature of this process. He points out, for instance, that just as uses of these technologies can be interpreted as the imposition of commercial rhythms onto bodily rhythms (as people walk through the city to their personal commercial soundtrack), they can also be seen as a form of resistance. Despite Arkette’s criticisms that communal soundscapes have been eroded by auditory technologies, Bull points out that these soundscapes themselves are not wholly positive and can reinforce linear rhythms. Individual “auditory bubbles”, therefore, could also be seen as tactical resistance to the linear rhythms that structure the working day and as holding the capacity to turn non-places back into meaningful locations. As Evans suggests, this relates to the concept of the “phoneur” whose drift through the city is facilitated by his or her use of auditory technologies (Evans 2014).

Bull is careful, however, to emphasise that these engagements with technology are not a straight-forward mode of tactical resistance, arguing that iPod users are “no flaneurs”, in the sense that listening to music does not necessarily encourage dérives that foster attunement with the environment, as users instead “make the urban street conform to their own aesthetic desire” (Bull 2004: 350). These auditory practices, furthermore, are still mediated by commercial forces (in the form of popular music), even as they could enable a degree of resistance to communally-experienced commercial rhythms. Analyses of artistic engagements with auditory technologies have, similarly, underlined the ambivalence of these media, but – crucially – they have also pointed to ways in which individualising technologies can be turned against themselves in creative projects to forge new (non-commercial) communal memoryscapes and connection with place (Butler 2006a, 2006b; Barns 2014). In TMD this is evident when phones are used to generate personal attachment to space (co-producing it as a place of both fictional and personal memory).

As explained in the introduction to this special issue, the plot of TMD focuses on a dystopian scenario in which memories can be recorded, downloaded and viscerally experienced. The flourishing black-market in “memory-dealing” has resulted in calls to legislate the trading of memory, with the UK government brokering a deal with a private company, leading to fears that memory itself will be privatized. Because the same auditory technologies that enable fictional characters to experience others’ memories are used by players to participate in the narrative (and – indeed – experience “memories” themselves) these media are given heightened resonance.

“You look at the other people going about their lives”

This argument was developed further by players:

Something I have considered in my life as well, that they might want our store of memories, even if it is just like the physical memories we have created on tapes and stuff, it feels like they could just kill us off and watch us forever now. (FRJ2)

In TMD, therefore, by creating an explicit link between the commodification of private experience and mobile technologies, room is opened for critical reflection on more everyday uses of personal auditory technologies.

This form of critical reflection was not only generated by the narrative content, however, but the way this content was disseminated; an unexpected effect of the drama, for instance, was that players were constantly looking out for fellow participants or were often suspicious of people using auditory technologies: “when somebody rushed past us with a green phone, who probably wasn’t anything to do with that, or maybe she was, I don’t know, but I just started being suspicious of those” (FRC5):

It’s nice having kind of the headphones, cos you can see other people around. Cos some of them might have been part of it, some of them might not be cos there’s lots of people. Obviously you’ve chosen something lots of people are doing anyway. So you don’t know who else is in on it, if you see what I mean? (SUF2)

In certain focus groups, people were also overtly critical of everyday uses of these technologies, with participants stating that their own use of these technologies to take part in the drama – and the connections drawn by the narrative between these media and disassociation between people and their environment – made them notice other people’s use of headphones and mobile technologies more broadly:

SUC5: You notice how many people who do have headphones in.

SUC2: It’s amazing, the number of people who walk around the streets, headphones in.

SUC5: And you think, are you involved in this or are you just on your phone?

SUC2: But why do they all look at their phone when they’re walking? (Sunday, 12.00)

One focus group even had a debate about headphone use, with a participant claiming that a different setting would have enhanced the drama by drawing attention to the widespread use of mobile technologies: “if you’d been, like, closer to the university, or in the middle of Broadwalk, or off on Park street, you’d have seen loads of people with headphones” (FRH4). In contrast, she argued that the drama’s actual setting did not encourage these forms of critical reflection as “no one’s walking around with their headphones in. Like everyone’s quite interacting with the boats and the seagulls and those things” and “I couldn’t, I didn’t see one person with their headphones in except for you guys?” (Notably, this claim was then contradicted by two fellow players.) In terms of the auditory politics of pervasive drama, what is significant about these debates is not these questions over setting but the acknowledgement of the medium’s defamiliarizing capacity. By giving rise to this critical discussion, players not only displayed reflection on everyday uses of mobile auditory technologies but awareness of how these technologies related to the topography of the city, foregrounding how movements through certain (commercial) areas were shaped by their use.

Although critical reflection was explicitly encouraged on a narrative level, what is significant is that this was not just prompted by the specific narrative of TMD itself but the technologies used to disseminate it; the very use of auditory technologies within the drama prompted debate about engagement (or dependency) on digital media on an everyday level and the way these technologies shape movement, space and human interaction. Some of this critical discussion, therefore, was not due to prompts by the drama itself, but generated by the mediation of the performance by mobile auditory technologies. Just as, on an everyday basis, these auditory technologies have been framed as shaping space in new ways, their use in pervasive drama, similarly, creates – sometimes unexpected – re-compositions of space. In line with Bruno Latour’s accounts of objects having their own agency (Latour 2004, 2005), therefore, by actively making a difference to people’s experience of the drama and to the production of place, these technologies can be seen as having agency in the ANT sense. Departing from Tuters’s assertion that ANT should replace Situationism as a framework for teasing out the politics of digital arts projects, however, I suggest that these approaches should instead be synthesised. While auditory technologies did play a mediating role in co-producing place, and had a degree of agency, this agency ultimately engendered detournement. This on-going role of detournement, therefore, gives Situationism continued relevance in conceptualising the cultural politics of such projects. Understanding the dynamics of pervasive drama in this way is thus valuable in grasping the capacity of both the narrative and the technologies used to politicize people’s engagements with place.


Pervasive drama can foster powerful relationships between players and locations, leading to the co-production of place that transforms everyday non-places into meaningful locations. To draw on terminology from ANT, however, it is not the seamless use of technologies to “transport” the narrative that is theoretically informative, but the defamiliarizing effects generated by these technologies. Where this process has critical potential, is that this defamiliarization can be enhanced by the narrative to prompt more explicit critical reflection on our everyday uses of digital media and engagements with public space. Indeed, something to be considered in future work is whether this capacity could be enhanced further through developing a drama that consciously plays with these relationships between auditory technologies and space. Building on Tuters’s claims about locative media’s capacity to re-compose space, could geo-locative technologies be used to accentuate tensions between (in projects like TMD) the need to avoid surveillance whilst depending on technologies that pin-point your location? Could, furthermore, tensions be heightened between the physical location in which the drama is set, the narrative and the technologies used? In other words, could locations be selected (or constructed) where technologically-mediated rhythms are their most pronounced (such as near a busy commuter area), in order to defamiliarize these rhythms in a more explicit way? It would be useful to conduct further research into how to enhance the critical and creative potentials of pervasive drama, whilst ensuring players are not alienated by these tensions.

My wider theoretical argument has been that, to conceptualise the way complex engagements between player and place are engendered within pervasive drama, it is useful to maintain the concept of defamiliarization (as facilitated by playful forms of detournement fostered by these performances). It is helpful, however, to understand the agency of the technology itself as being what affords pervasive drama its defamiliarizing potential, especially if used in conjunction with a narrative that actively strives to forge meaningful connections with place (as with TMD). A conceptual framework that synthesises insights from Situationism with a more sustained focus on technological agency is thus needed to capture the distinct auditory politics of pervasive drama and the complex listening potentials offered by the medium. More broadly, I suggest that paying attention to technology can enrich existing conceptions of (and creative engagements with) narrative’s listening potentials.



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