Making books that don't behave like books

Tom Abba
Opinion - Digital 06 November 2015

Tom Abba introduces the experimental storytelling projects that artists' collective Circumstance will exhibit at The Rooms in Bristol this weekend.

It's easy to suggest that the ebook is a parody of print - a shuffling, half-formed thing that mocks everything we once aspired to do in digital reading and writing. It's a relatively simple thing to point out that adding video and a soundtrack to an otherwise linear narrative is rather a waste of everyone's time. It's not difficult to point out the flaws in a digital publishing strategy that hinges on "not letting anything really change", when the entire production ecosystem is ripe for renewal and reinvention.

All of those things are easy to do, and I've done them all. In print, on a podcast, on blogs and in conversation.

What's hard - and as a result rarely attempted - is to do something about those things. Doing something requires commitment and vision. It demands that you look past the smokescreen of the print vs digital debate (which still managed to occupy a section of a national newspaper for three and a half years) and reach for the impossible.

It demands that you make some work.

In 2012, Circumstance ( began to work with books. We wanted to bring the way we used experience in our larger scale, public works down to the level of an interaction with a single reader. We made a collection of work called Short Films for You (, which comprised a series of small experiences connecting a book, audio and a set of physical objects. And used the presence of a reader in a way that evoked cinema. A year later, we made These Pages Fall Like Ash ( with Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway. This was a story told across two books - one a physical, crafted artefact and the other a digital text hidden on wireless hard drives in a real city and read on a mobile device. The reader was situated between a real and an imagined location, reading fragments of story exchanged between two characters and becoming caught up in their struggle to reconnect to each other.

In both of these works, the reader was paramount. We knew what you were doing, sometimes we knew exactly where you were standing and what you could see. We could write for you. And we could bridge between a physical and digital platform and tell stories that used those two spaces in an interdependent way.

We were making books that didn't behave like books. Books that went beyond the printed page, and did things that print couldn't do, while still celebrating the physical object: the book.

Last year we scaled down. We started to make short experiments, the length of a short story, a brisk walk, a piece of music - whatever metaphor you choose to employ. We're not convinced that readers are ready for book-length works, and we value the sense of adventure that comes with exploring new territory. We've made work with established and new writers, and they've all taught us something. We work fast - two days to develop a piece until we have the shape of a coherent idea. Of the completed prototypes: with Audrey Niffenegger we're asking two readers to walk away from each other, to separate before the text on their twinned devices can be read. They'll have a physical book too, of course, but the content there won't make complete sense until they've read the digital layer, which stays visible only as long as they remain separated. Stark Holborn brought us an alternative history of photography, telling a story that slips between performance and participation and that might make you look at every photo in your library with new eyes. We've made work that's strange, wonderful and sometimes perturbing; and the end of the journey depends on where you start.

These pieces are ideas made real. They're ways to tell stories that don't mimic print and instead take readers on a journey. We never quite leave the book behind, but try to show what digital can really do. We believe that digital can be more than a marketing led add-on for stories. We're working to find a new writing grammar, and we're making real progress.

Circumstance say that we work with the narrative of experience, with sound and mobile technology and with the book. What we really do is tell stories. We tell them with cities, with memory, with books, with poetry and with magic.

We'll be showing all of these works at The Rooms ( in Bristol this weekend. If you want to talk to us, come and say hello, or get in touch (

Circumstance is an artists' collective who work within the narrative of experience, the politics of public space, sound and mobile technology.

Tom Abba is a co-Director of Circumstance, and an Associate Professor in Art & Design at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

The Rooms is funded by REACT - one of four Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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