The Ambience of Ambience

Luke Oliver Jaaniste


Well, you couldn't control the situation to that extent. The world just comes in on top of you. It creeps under the door. It falls out of the sky. It's all around. (Leunig)

Like the world that cartoonist Michael Leunig describes, ambience is all around. Everywhere you go.

You cannot get away from it. You cannot hide from it. You cannot be without it. For ambience is that which surrounds us, that which pervades. Always-on. Always by-your-side. Always already. Here, there and everywhere. Super-surround-sound. Immersive. Networked and cloudy. Ubiquitous.

Although you cannot avoid ambience, you may ignore it. In fact, ambience is almost as ignored as it is pervasive. For the most part, our attention is given over to what’s in front of us, what we pick up, what we handle, what is in focus. Instead of ambience, our phenomenal existence is governed by what we bring into the foreground of our lives. Our attention is, almost by definition, occupied not by what is ambient, but what is salient (Jaaniste, Approaching Ch. 1).

So, when Brian Eno coined the term Ambient Music in the 1970s (see Burns; Radywyl; and Ensminger in this issue), he was doing something strange. He was bringing ambience, as an idea and in its palpable sonic dimension, into salience. The term, and the penchant for attuning and re-thinking our connections to our surroundings, caught on. By the end of the twentieth century, it was deemed by one book author worthy of being called the ambient century (Prendergast).

Eno is undoubtedly the great populariser of the term, but there’s a backstory to ambience. If Spitzer’s detailed semantic analysis of ‘ambience’ and its counterpart ‘milieu’ published back in the 1940s is anything to go by, then Newtonian physics had a lot to do with how ambience entered into our Modern vernacular. Isaac Newton’s laws and theories of gravity and the cosmos offered up a quandary for science back then: vast amounts of empty space. Just like we now know that most of an atom is empty space, within which a few miserly electrons, protons, neutrons and other particle fly about (and doesn’t that seem weird given how solid everything feels?) so too it is with planets, stars, galaxies whose orbits traverse through the great vacuum of the universe. And that vacuum Newton called ambience.

But maybe outer-space, and ambience, is not actually empty. There could be dark matter everywhere. Or other things not yet known, observed or accounted for. Certainly, the history of our thinking around ambience since its birth in physics has seen a shift from vacuity to great density and polyphony.

Over time, several ‘spaces’ became associated with ambience, which we might think of as the great scapes of our contemporary lives: the natural environment, the built environment, the social world, the aesthetic worlds encountered ‘within’ artefacts, and the data-cloud.

Now is not the time or place to give a detailed history of these discursive manoeuvres (although some key clues are given in Spizter; and also Jaaniste, Approaching). But a list of how the term has been taken up after Eno–across the arts, design, media and culture–reveals the broad tenets of ambience or, perhaps, the ambience of ambience. Nowadays we find talk of (in alphabetical order): ambient advertising (Quinion), aesthetics (Foster), architecture (CNRS; Sample), art (Desmarias; Heynen et al.), calculus (Cardelli), displays (Ambient Displays Reserch Group; Lund and Mikael; Vogel and Balakrishnan), fears (Papastergiadis), findability (Morville), informatics (Morville), intelligence (Weber et al.), media (Meeks), narratives (Levin), news (Hagreaves and Thomas), poetics (Morton), television (McCarthy), and video (Bizzocchi). There’s probably more.

Time, then, to introduce the authors assembled for this special ‘ambient’ issue of M/C Journal. Writing from the globe, in Spain, Ukraine, Canada, United Sates, and New Zealand, and from cities across Australia, in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth, they draw on and update the ambience of ambience.

Alison Bartlett, in our feature article, begins with bodies of flesh (and sweat and squinting) and bodies of thought (including Continental theory). She draws us into a personal, present tense and tensely present account of the way writing and thinking intertwine with our physical locality. The heat, light and weathered conditions of her place of writing, now Perth and previously Townsville, are evoked, as is some sort of teased out relation with Europe. If we are always immersed in our ambient conditions, does this effect and affect everything we do, and think?

Bruce Arnold and Margalit Levin then shift gear, from the rural and natural to the densely mediated contemporary urban locale. Urban ambience, as they say, is no longer about learning to avoid (or love?) harsh industrial noises, but it’s about interactivity, surveillance and signalling. They ambivalently present the ambient city as a dialectic, where feeling connected and estranged go hand-in-hand.

Next we explore one outcome or application of the highly mediated, iPhone and Twitter-populated city. Alfred Hermida has previously advanced the idea of ‘ambient journalism’ (Hermida, Twittering), and in his M/C Journal piece he outlines the shift from ambient news (which relies on multiple distribution points, but which relays news from a few professional sources) to a journalism that is ambiently distributed across citizens and non-professional para-journalists. Alex Burns takes up Hermida’s framework, but seeks to show how professional journalism might engage in complex ways with Twitter and other always-on, socially-networked data sources that make up the ‘awareness system’ of ambient journalism.

Burns ends his provocative paper by suggesting that the creative processes of Brian Eno might be a model for flexible approaches to working with the ambient data fields of the Internet and social grid. Enter the data artist, the marginal doodler and the darkened museum. Pau Waelder examines the way artists have worked with data fields, helping us to listen, observe and embody what is normally ignored. David Ensminger gives a folklorist-inspired account of the way doodles occupy the ambient margins of our minds, personalities and book pages. And Natalia Radywyl navigates the experiences of those who encountered the darkened and ambiguously ambient Screen Gallery of the Australian Centre for Moving Image, and ponders on what this mean for the ‘new museum’.

If the experience of doodles and darkened galleries is mainly an individual thing, the final two papers delve into the highly social forms of ambience. Pauline Cheong explores how one particular type of community, Christian churches in the United States, has embraced (and sometimes critiqued) the use of Twitter to facilitate the communal ambience, 140 characters at a time. Then Christine Teague with Lelia Green and David Leith report on the working lives of transit officers on duty on trains in Perth. This is a tough ambience, where issues of safety, fear, confusion and control impact on these workers as much as they try to influence the ambience of a public transport network.

The final paper gives us something to pause on: ambience might be an interesting topic, but the ambience of some people and some places might be unpalatable or despairing. Ambience is morally ambivalent (it can be good, bad or otherwise), and this is something threading through many of the papers before us. Who gets to control our ambient surrounds? Who gets to influence them? Who gets to enjoy them, take advantage of them, ignore them? For better or worse.

The way we live with, connect to and attune to the ambience of our lives might be crucially important. It might change us. And it might do so on many levels. As is now evident, all the great scapes, as I called them, have been taken up in this issue. We begin with the natural environment (Bartlett’s weather) and the urban built environment (Arnold and Levin; and also Radywyl). Then we enter the data-cloud (Herminda; Burns; Waelder, and also Cheong), shifting into the aesthetic artefact (Waelder; Ensminger; Radywyl), and then into the social sphere (Cheong; Teague, Green and Leith). Of course, all these scapes, and the authors’ concerns, overlap. Ambience is a multitude, and presses into us and through us in many ways.


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ambient; ambience

Copyright (c) 2010 Luke Oliver Jaaniste

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