Wandering across Melbourne’s Princes Bridge, you might think you’ve stumbled over a graffiti stencil. Your heel digs into a face and your toes cover a tiny map. Shuffling aside, you can see that buried within that face is a QR code, one of those digital Rorschach tests advertisers like, except rather than reveal your mental ailments it shares the stories of the city around you.
You’re standing on a piece of 7Stories, writer and artist Matt Blackwood’s most recent instance of Locative Literature, an intriguing type of text unfastened from book bindings and Kindle screens.
‘I have a love-hate relationship with technology,’ Blackwood tells us. ‘I love it because it allows me to research in ways that I never could before, and to connect to other people’s stories in a broad sense, but I dislike the way that it takes up so much of my time by actually doing that!’
A little paradoxical, but then so is his storytelling process. That face sketched from QR-coding and shaded with words is to be scanned with your smart phone. Instead of taking you to a Sprite promotion, you’ll end up on the 7Stories website, where you can listen to a short story that takes place where you’re standing.
Hence the term Locative Literature – it happens around you, with Blackwood’s disembodied voice relating a 3-4 minute tale. Further up Swanston Street, in some of Melbourne’s most iconic locations, are six different stories waiting to be unlocked.
‘I thought, wouldn’t it be great to connect the part of technology that I love with the kind of writing that I love,’ he explains. ‘I use technology as a conduit to get people to experience stories in the places where they are set.’
In principle it’s pretty much the same as prehistoric cave drawings or telling ghost stories around a campfire, the only difference to Blackwood is that it’s delivered via technology.
The technology also lends itself to the types of stories that Blackwood tells, which are often ‘quite simple’ and utilise as ‘little description as possible’, a quality that ‘lends them to narration’. Not to mention that overbearing descriptors aren’t necessary for painting a scene when you’re actually standing in the setting.
Not only do you inhabit the setting of the story, that face you’re standing on belongs to the character whose story you’ll hear once you scan the QR code. You might think those codes are a flash in an advertiser’s pan, but Blackwood and his artist-in-crime Csilla Csongvay handcraft the codes to suit different projects.
7Stories isn’t the first time that the pair have used QR codes to tell stories, and faces aren’t the only forms their artworks take. For 1Story, which was exhibited at Fracture Gallery at Federation Square, Blackwood and Csongvay made the QR code out of three-thousand keyboard keys. The story, set when the Fed Square site was the Gas and Fuel Building, concerned a worker lamenting his typewriter keys getting stuck.
Likewise, for 2Stories, which was exhibited at NGV Studio, the QR codes that told the stories were also manipulated to reflect the narrative. The first was of a person who knits beautiful woollen brooches, so naturally, the code was made from woollen brooches. The second character dreamed of travelling the London underground, so for the second code they layered metro maps on top of each other.
‘So when you were looking at it, the code would function as a portion of the story,’ he explains. ‘It actually gave you further backstory to the characters.’
Considering the technical investment in his artistic practice, something is bound to go wrong right? ‘Not really, we spend a hell of a lot of time testing them,’ Blackwood counters. ‘We’ve been doing it long enough to know how far we can push it.’
While Blackwood’s avoided the typical sci-fi troupe of technology going horribly awry, his work still has something in common with the Phillip K. Dick’s out there – interest in time travel.
As the previous ‘story’ examples suggests, Blackwood is ‘really interested in place and how that changes over time’. 2stories was set in the same site – where NGV Studio stands – but was about a waitress working in the aboriginal restaurant that was previously there, and someone giving a tour of Fed Square in the future/present. ‘I thought, not only do I want to set it in the location, but also across different timeframes,’ he says.
7Stories is no different. During the three months that it took him to put together the project, he visited the sites countless times, took photographs, trawled library databases and searched out vintage photos of the sites. So 7Stories spans around five decades, with Blackwood likening it to a radio station playing the hits from the 60s, 70,s 80s, 90s and beyond.
That attention to detail also serves the purpose of his practice. ‘It’s the minutiae of a place that really excites me, if its crafted into the story then it creates a truly immersive experience,’ he explains. ‘Giving that bit of grounding to a story blurs fiction and non-fiction, immersing the listener more.’
But why do this? Why not just publish a book? For Blackwood there are two reasons, and they’re inevitably tied together.
‘There’s a lot of stigma unfortunately attached to literature. If we break it away from those forms of a book or even a Kindle and literally go, “There’s writing underneath your feet”, then people will give it a shot. It costs them nothing, and the literary experience only lasts three minutes, so it only takes up a few moments of their time.’
The other reason is simple, if not civic. ‘Melbourne is a City of Literature. We’re not a city of painting or sculpture or sport, we’re a city of literature, so why not have evidence of that everywhere we can?
7Stories is currently installed along Swanston Street from Princes Bridge to the State Library of Victoria. It will last the duration of the Emering Writers’ Festival (until June 2), and will appear again in August during Melbourne Writers Festival.
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Some in-situ images and panoramics of 7Stories (as well as some other LocLit projects)