VideoObject 1: The Memory Dealer Trailer.
TMD sits within an emerging field of experimental, “pervasive” theatre that exploits digital and personal technologies to create fictional narratives that are then layered onto real world spaces. Such dramas remove narratives from the controlled, carefully constructed spaces of the theatre, cinema, or home and place them in public streets and buildings. There is no screen or proscenium arch separating the diegesis from its audience. Players move through and between different spaces that are transformed from their daily existence – a hotel room, a café – into a space layered with narrative detail and meaning. This involves a fundamental shift in both the form of storytelling and the positing of the audience. Rather than the narrative being told to the audience in the form of exposition or dialogue, the storyworld unfolds as the audience experiences it (see Evans 2014). Instead of being observers of the diegesis, audience members become participants in it, enabling narrative events to happen by their own actions. The narrative of pervasive drama is dynamic, with several “author-agents”, including Lander, his cast, and crew and the participants themselves, all contributing to each participant’s individual and unique experience. Work on such pervasive narratives is slowly emerging from fields such as Human-Computer-Interaction (Benford 2011; Evans, Martindale and Flintham 2014) or in relation to alternate reality games (McGonigal 2003, 2008, 2011). Much of this work focuses on issues of design or on managing the relationship between creator and audience (O’Hara, Grian and Williams 2008). The innovations in terms of storytelling techniques and technological exploitation at play in pervasive drama, however, mean that it is a form that is ripe for continued deeper interrogation.
Especially key to pervasive dramas is the use of personal technologies and an emphasis on sound (and the ear) as the locus of the narrative. In many ways, this sonic emphasis is inherent to the very nature of pervasive drama. On the one hand, the blurring of real and fictional space is a central pleasure and pursuit of pervasive drama and facilitates a range of subject positions as discussed throughout this special issue. To that extent, TMD offers researchers a new angle not hitherto covered by scholarship dealing with other, more conventional, sound-dependent narrative genres which actively seek to avoid this blurring, e.g. film and opera. On the other hand, there is also a pragmatic element. In order for players to navigate successfully through busy streets, complete with members of the general public and traffic, part of their attention must be on those streets to prevent accidents or injuries. This form of split attention, referred to by Jussi Parikka and Jaako Suominen (Parikka and Suominen 2006) as “bi-psyche”, requires a balance between the senses, especially sight and hearing. By focusing on sound, and so the participant’s hearing, dramas such as TMD are able to manage this balance, ensuring that enough attention, through sight, remains directed toward the real world around the participant and not on the fictional world inside their head. To construct a pervasive drama using mobile video would remove too much of the player’s sensory attention from their surrounding environment, removing both a key pleasure and increasing its inherent danger.
We argue that pervasive dramas such as TMD and “subtle mobs” such as As If It Were the Last Time (created by Duncan Speakman in 2009) or Coderunner (created by RocketChicken Interactive in 2013) can therefore be thought of as “sound narratives” in the way that they privilege sound as a, if not the, primary source of both the narrative and the participant’s experience. As such, they sit within a nexus of sound based media – most commonly personal music players, radio, and audio books – that are in a unique position to reshape our relationship to the space around us. Michael Bull articulates this in the model of a personal “sound bubble” (Bull 2004; see also Wilken 2010) through an analysis of the personal stereo. Different media forms (and different forms of sound narratives), however, construct different kinds of bubbles and, in turn, different experiences for individuals and different relationships between that individual, the device and their surroundings.
As the TMD player navigates this bubble and is exposed to the blurring of the real-fictional boundary in a sequence of sensory stimuli (sonic, visual, and – while moving – kinesthetic), what remains the most direct experience of the drama is undoubtedly the soundtrack: “We can close our eyes, but we cannot shut our ears” (Cobussen and Nielsen 2012: 8). And this “direct listening” has the capacity to be not just attentive, but engage us physiologically in sensual and sensory affective processes, as Anahid Kassabian (Kassabian 2013) has argued in her exploration of our developing capacity to engage with the “ubiquitous musics” of everyday life. The possibility for such an interactive sensory and affective engagement is summed up well in percussionist Evelyn Glennie's words that hearing is a “specialized form of touch” (Glennie 1993: 1). And once considered a more all-encompassing engagement, the oft-cited distinction between hearing (as physiological) and listening (as conscious and attentive) is erased: all listening can be considered physiological and includes several kinds of consciousness and attention (Kassabian 2013). As a sonic narrative, partaking in TMD thus brings to the fore the blurring of further boundaries; it requires the active participation of the whole human being, physically and mentally, in a world where technology regularly provides us with ubiquitous sound more often than not. This both heightens and challenges our capacity to interact sonically. It is through listening that the engagement in TMD becomes fully immersive.
Because it provides a fictional world layered onto a real world and because it plays with participants’ relationships with everyday ubiquitous listening in novel ways, TMD presents new perspectives for sound studies. Recent scholarship has attempted to map theoretically the ways in which individual auditory environments interact with the dynamic soundscapes of the outside world and transgress the boundaries between private and public spheres (e.g. Fluegge 2011); in its own unique way, TMD offers important empirical material for this kind of theoretical groundwork. The research into TMD presented here can also be considered a timely response to the recent call (in this very journal) for uncovering and understanding particular “sonic forms of knowledge”, i.e. understanding – in the first instance – how we respond and act according to auditory impulses that may lead to new knowledge:
[I]nstead of fixed identities and meanings, stability, nouns, and stasis, the sonic exposes us to action and movement, to fleeting understandings, verbs, and contingent possibilities. The ear’s focus is on process, on objects and events existing in time. (Cobussen, Schulze and Meelberg 2013)
As a thoroughly process-based, interactive pervasive drama, TMD opens up possibilities for different engagement with a variety of (internal and external) sonic spaces and thus becomes part of this current move towards a “new sonic materialism” (Cobussen, Schulze and Meelberg 2013) where the listening subject is central and where understanding the sonic involvement can tell us something important about our engagement with the world as well as the knowledge that emerges from this engagement. In this sense, as a novel sound world prompting new responses – responses that can be explored and analyzed – TMD is a rare form of documentation, providing fertile ground for exploration.
Epistemology aside, another crucial contribution to current sound studies emerges from the way in which TMD – especially because of its setting in real life, involving encounters with real people – requires participants to mediate disbelief in a constant juggle between reality and imagination rather than suspend it. Suspension of disbelief is normally the case with more conventional genres like film, opera, or video games, where the successful experience is dependent on a constant imaginary leap that remains passively situated in one physical place (e.g. the cinema, opera house, or bed room). The experience of pervasive drama is mediated in a radically new way because it is dynamic and in flux, rather than passive and static: the drama unfolds through a constant negotiation between different kinds of awareness and engagement, where the reality (and unreality) of each player is constructed as the narrative develops. Because of TMD’s intrinsic realism, the imaginary involvement is challenged in novel ways. Furthermore, this mediation occurs through a particular kind of subjective involvement (via the direct experience of sound), where immersion is directly related to the player’s subject position, i.e. where the player assumes either the self of a character (when “in character” as Eve) or the real self, e.g. when receiving particular instructions or reflecting on the next part of the action. If the classic narrative Hollywood film genre has paved the way for understanding the soundtrack as a narrative aid, the experience of pervasive drama is a multi-layered one, and TMD provides new scopes for research within the growing area of subjectivity studies and invites new approaches to uncovering the phenomenology of listening. While exploring the new kind of media engagement that an innovative drama such as TMD offers, this collection seeks to address the current lack of interrogation on the nature of sound narratives and the consequences of placing sound at the center of the narrative experience.