Introduction to M/C Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2010), The 'ambient' edition. 
Guest edited by Luke 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.

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.


Ambient Displays Research Group. “Ambient Displays Research Group.” 25 July 2006 ‹http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/Research/Projects/CS/io/ambient/›.

Bizzocchi, Jim. “Ambient Video: The Transformation of the Domestic Cinematic Experience.” Media Environments and the Liberal Arts Conference, 10-13 June 2004, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. 26 July 2006 ‹http://www.dadaprocessing.com› [third version of this essay].

Cardelli, Luca. “Mobility and Security.” Lecture notes for Marktoberdorf Summer School 1999, summarising several Ambient Calculus papers by Luca Cardelli & Andrew Gordon. Foundations of Secure Computation. Eds. Friedrich L. Bauer and Ralf Steinbrüggen. NATO Science Series. Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Study Institute on Foundations of Secure Computation, Marktoberdorf, Germany, 27 July - 8 Aug. 1999. 3-37. ‹http://lucacardelli.name/Papers/Mobility%20and%20Security.A4.pdf›.

CNRS. “UMR CNRS 1563: Ambiances architecturales et urbaines”. 2007. 9 Feb. 2007 ‹http://www.archi.fr/RECHERCHE/annuaireg/pdf/UMR1563.pdf›.

Desmarias, Charles. “Nothing Compared to This: Ambient, Incidental and New Minimal Tendencies in Contemporary Art.” Catalogue essay for exhibition curated by Charles Desmarais at Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, 25 Sep. - 28 Nov. 2004.

Foster, Cheryl. “The Narrative and the Ambient in Environmental Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 56.2 (Spring 1998): 127-137.

Hargreaves, Ian, and James Thomas. “New News, Old News.” ITC/BSC (October 2002). 3 May 2010 ‹http://legacy.caerdydd.ac.uk/jomec/resources/news.pdf›.

Herminda, Alfred. “Twittering the News: The Emergence of Ambient Journalism.” Journalism Practice (11 March 2010). 3 May 2010 ‹http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a919807525›.

Heynen, Julian, Kasper Konig, and Stefani Jansen. Ambiance: Des deux cơtes du Rhin. To accompany an exhibition of the same name at K21 Kuntstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf, 15 Oct. 2005 – 12 Feb. 2006. Köln: Snoeck.

Jaaniste, Luke. Approaching the Ambient: Creative Practice and the Ambient Mode of Being. Doctoral thesis, Queensland University of Technology, 2007. 3 May 2010 ‹http://www.lukejaaniste.com/writings/phd›.

Leunig, Michael. “Michael Leunig”. Enough Rope with Andrew Denton. ABC Television, 8 May 2006. 3 May 2010 ‹http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s1632918.htm›.

Lund, Andreas, and Mikael Wiberg. “Ambient Displays beyond Convention.” HCI 2004, The 18th British HCI Group Annual Conference, Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, 6-10 Sep. 2004. 18 Oct. 2005 ‹http://www.informatik.umu.se/~mwiberg/designingforattention_workshop_lund_wiberg.pdf›.

Manovich, Lev. “Soft Cinema: Ambient Narratives.” Catalogue for the Soft Cinema Project presented at Future Cinema: The Cinemtic Imaginary after Film at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, 16 Nov. 2002 - 30 March 2003.

McCarthy, Anna. Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.

Meeks, Cyan. Ambient Media: Meanings and Implications. Masters of Fine Arts thesis, Graduate School of the State University of New York, Department of Media Study, August 2005.

Morton, Timothy. “Why Ambient Poetics?: Outline for a Depthless Ecology.” The Wordsworth Circle 33.1 (Winter 2002): 52-56.

Morville, Peter. Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. O’Reilly Media, 2005.

Papastergiadis, Nikos. “Ambient Fears.” Artlink 32.1 (2003): 28-34.

Prendergast, Mark. The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance, the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

Quinion, Michael. “Ambient Advertising.” World Wide Words 5 Sep. 1998. 3 Aug. 2006 ‹http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-amb1.htm›.

Sample, Hilary. “Ambient Architecture: An Environmental Monitoring Station for Pasadena, California.” 306090 07: Landscape with Architecture. 306090 Architecture Journal 7 (Sep. 2004): 200-210.

Spitzer, Leo. “Milieu and Ambiance: An Essay in Historical Semantics (Part 2).” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3.2 (Dec. 1942): 169–218.

Vogel, Daniel, and Ravin Balakrishnan. “Interactive Public Ambient Displays: Transitioning from Implicit to Explicit, Public to Personal, Interaction with Multiple Users.” Proceedings of the 18th ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Large Public Displays session, Santa Fe. New York: ACM Press. 137-146.

Weber, W., J.M. Rabaey, and E. Aarts. Eds. Ambient Intelligence. Berlin: Springer, 2005.


Exhibition essay
Written for Shift, solo exhibition of Chris Denaro
Metro Arts Main Gallery, 15 Oct - 1 Nov 2008

Ambience is all-around. Something to get lost in, as we relocate our bearings… Some ambient works achieve this by completely enveloping our bodies within our surroundings: ambient forms of visual, sonic and architectural installation. But equally so, other ambient works, including those of Chris Denaro, create an ambience within the contained space of framed formats: the (usually rectilinear) still image of painting and photography, the moving image of video, film and computer screen, and the work of music, with its beginning and end, encountered on stage or through speakers.

The history of framed ambient fields, traceable in both avant-garde and commercial creative practice since the industrial revolution, is a history subject to the three great expanses of our sensorial world – wilderness, cityscape and abstraction. This history includes ambient music (a term coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s which brought ambience into popular discourse, but as a genre going back at least to Eric Satie’s day-long loop of piano music in 1890s, and the Furniture Music and Musak Corporation from the 1920s), ambient painting (going back at least to William Turner’s late landscapes around the 1840s), ambient photography (going back at least to the earliest aerial photograph by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in the late 1850s over the French landscape), and ambient video (going back at least to the early 1900s evident in some of the Visual Music film program shown recently at Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane).

In all these ambient works, internal form heads towards an ambient-ground which disarms commonplace figure-ground or background-foreground relationships. Rosalind Krauss’ thinking about modernist painting in The Optical Unconsious (1993) helps chart the possibilities for such ambient-grounds (my term, not hers). A careful reading of Chapter One reveals four ways in which ambient-grounds were developed in modernism: the monochrome (one thing blanketed all-around – think Kazimir Malevich), the all-over (many similar things splattered all-around – think Jackson Pollock), the mise-en-abyme (one thing infinitely nested within itself, like a hall of mirrors – think MC Esher) and the grid (a lattice or unit that repeats itself in all directions – think Agnes Martin). In music, we could likewise think of the drone, extreme noise, echo chamber and repeated pulse. Of course, some works combine these four possibilities; the squares and rectangles of Piet Mondrian or Bridget Riley’s Op Art hover between mise-en-abyme and grid, whilst Robert Ryman’s messy monochromes built up of individuated blobs hover between the all-over and monochrome.

Krauss’ four-part schema can be taken further, by locating two techniques of assemblage which establish radically different ambient rhythms. The space of mise-en-abyme and grid involves discrete bits and pieces repeated to form staccato tessellations. On the other hand, the space of all-over and monochrome involves smudges and blobs blurred to form legato undulations. These two ambient rhythms are contrasted in the music of the American minimalists: Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s quaver-note riffs strung out in pulsating layers (staccato), compared to La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s slowly morphing drones (legato).

Let’s then consider Chris Denaro’s work exhibited as part of his 2008 Metro Arts residency. We witness here a practice of ambient image-making, using both moving and still formats, that draws on the contemporary city in all its scales both intimate and expansive: floor boards, windows, road markings, building facades, cityscapes. The two rhythms of ambient work – the repeated staccato and blurred legato – are at play here and in many respects Denaro is diving deep into ambient vernaculars and techniques developed last century. It is no wonder that among his stated influences are visual artist MC Esher, Russian constructivist Ilya Chashnik and experimental film-makers Norman McLaren and Len Lye, who were all active in the early twentieth century.

Denaro however is working digitally, using digital animation, image-editing and presentation media of the day, and this makes a difference. The difference is in the rhythms. And the way these rhythms course through an image, across the print or screen, and through our eyes wide open and inner-body-space. In short, the rhythms of digital ambience – well, at least in the hands of expert and nuanced practitioners – can be much tighter than work made by pre-digital means of the hand and the machine. In the realm of digital production, the repetitions are for all intents and purposes exact, which provides a crystalline atmosphere. And the smudges are tighter too. The smear is taut, producing not a crystalline but more a liquid crystal effect. Granted, it’s a subtle thing, which requires a fine-grain attention open to the articulation of the rhythms. Try to stare down these images and you’ll get caught in their pristine lattice.

This tightening of the rhythms in contemporary digital ambient work lends a fresh edge to the long history of ambient creative work – expressed in the work of Denaro and other practitioners who are ‘digital natives’ of the world of CGI, Photoshop, plasma screens, 9600 dpi ink jets, 3D gaming engines, web colour, HD TV and the like. Compare, for instance, Denaro’s cut-ups of city buildings to the photographic documentation of building cuts by the American site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Or Denaro’s smudge fields with the abstract-figurative blurs of German painter Gerhard Richter. Or the flicker of Denaro’s films with early concrete films by musician and film-maker Tony Conrad. While we think of ambience as an all-over, atmospheric, wafting spread, this doesn’t mean that it cannot also be precise and pristine. The precision of digitised ambient rhythm.


PhD project
Doctoral research conducted through Creative Industries Faculty
Queensland University of Technology. 2003-2007


This practice-led research proposes, expands upon and presents a mode of being that has been hinted at within creative practice and intellectual thought, especially within installation practices in visual and sound arts, since the 1950s. 

I call this the ambient mode of being-in-our-surroundings. It involves a way of engaging with our urban surroundings that eschews the typical logic of foreground and background that grounds our daily and aesthetic lives. Instead, the ambient mode is an altered state in which we attune to the all-around-everywhere materiality of the surroundings. This deals with down-to-earth stuff – how we exist in our surroundings and deal with its pervasive material excess. 

There are four complementary ways of arriving at the ambient mode that are presented in this research.

The first three ways are described in the essay: (I) by way of concepts – developing a theory of ambience and the ambient mode based on Heidegger’s realms of world and earth; (II) by way of example – charting practical shifts towards the ambient mode via minimalist, situationist and serialist strategies; and (III) by way of making – experimenting in the various moments of creative practice, from in situ making to documenting, presenting and discussing. 

Most importantly, we also arrive at the ambient mode (IV) by way of experience – discovering our surroundings anew through ambient creative works. To this end, this research includes an exhibition of in situ work (Approaching the Ambient, October 2006), and photographic and audio documentation of work made in various places across Australia during the research (Spotting, Surfacing, Orientating, Tolling, selected works 2004-2006).

CD box set (Tolling)  [not available online]
Essay  [pdf 1.7MB]


Lecture handouts
Lecture presented to visual art students, QUT, 2007


Paper presented at Rhizomes Conference, UQ, 2005
Revised version published online, here.


White Noise, curated by Mike Stubbs
Australian Centre of Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, 17 Aug – 23 Oct 2005
Published in ArtLink Vol 25 No 4, 2005

NB: pre-print version appears below

White Noise explored ‘abstraction in a digital age’. Specifically, it revealed how contemporary artists are using the language of abstraction, developed in the twentieth century, within the context of the digital moving image. Located downstairs in ACMI's ‘black box’ screening gallery, eight international and Australian artists were showcased, accompanied by an online component, screenings from ACMI’s collection, and a large catalogue.

The catalogue and screenings linked the exhibited work to early abstract film experiments, the history of the monochrome and concepts of interactivity and complexity. But there was one ‘missing link’ to the exhibition, one much more banal, mainstream and closer to home: namely, the paradigm of the screen-saver. This clearly wasn’t a screen-saver show, but each work in White Noise behaved like a screen saver with a twist, and it was the twists that made the exhibition captivating.

In the main exhibition component, the twists were a question of the installation rather than the screen content. The first work encountered gave a subtle clue to this. In Black on Black, White on White by Jonathan Duckworth (from Metraform, Melbourne) three small horizontal screens displayed a simple vector graphics pattern but only the middle one was obvious. The pattern could only be seen on the other two screens by squinting from certain angles. This was due to Polaroid shields covering the screens, thus foregrounding the spatial and material qualities of the screen.

In contrast, Ulf Langheinrich (Austria) presented two cinematic essays. Waveform was a large four-panel work that confronted the viewer with glowing red bands that looked like an ambiguous land- or sea-scape. Drift, commissioned by ACMI, was an even larger two-panel work that hurtled the viewer across a sea floor that slowly morphed into film grains and then into hypnotic white bands, with a puzzling cut to an octopus.

Ryoji Ikeda’s data.spectra was also a room-sized work, but with a screen only two-inchs high – a strip of white light that was, upon close inspection, rows of scrolling Matrix-like digits. Ikeda’s other work, spectra II, wasn’t concerned with the moving image, which made it an odd, though startling, addition. A long corridor with alternating bright light, strobe light and black outs made it the most extreme sensory experiment of the exhibition.

Aguas Vivas by Peter Bosch and Simone Simons (Holland/Spain) appeared to be the most sophisticated digital screen work – a dazzling set of organic forms that danced on screen chaos-theory-style. But a hole in a nearby wall revealed a simple analogue set up: a real-time video of reflections of a fluorescent light on a vibrating tub of oil. An object lesson that generative software coding still lags behind the nuance and variation possible with clever analogue processes.

Keiko Kimoto (Japan) also, perhaps unwittingly, showed the gap between digital and analogue technologies. Imaginary Numbers was a series of galaxy-like patterns displayed on luminescent plates and plasma screens. The plates had a far greater black/white contrast and a far finer resolution, so much so that the plasma screen seemed the older, weaker technology.

Less convincing was Absolute 5 by Ernest Edmunds (Sydney) and Mark Fell (UK). A screen of coloured stripes, positioned above head height with surround sound glitch-music, it promised an ‘interactive system’ that was difficult to discern.

Electronica sound was part of most of the works, acting like a general immersive glue, rather than carrying any specific symbolic or structural content.

Accompanying the installed works was an online section from the Abstraction Now exhibition held in Vienna in 2003. Experienced via PC, these digital vignettes functioned like interactive screen-savers that changed shape, sound, size, colour, density etc on the click or drag of a mouse.

Finally, one of the strongest ‘works’ was the overall exhibition layout (by Studio 505 and The Flaming Beacon), itself a play on digital screens and abstract space. In the darkness, square doorways of blue light separated each room and framed LCD info screens, and from either end this created the optical illusion that one was in a mirror hall. The layout also solved the issue of audio and light spill between works. However, there were some problems with the framing and layout. The locations of both catalogue and screening room, which together bore much of the weight of the curatorial narrative, were poorly signed. There was some sunlight spill during the day. And Langheinrich’s circular work Light was awkwardly spotted next to escalators.

White Noise achieved impressive production values in the presentation of immersive digital works, setting a benchmark that befits our national centre of the moving image. It showed that the digital screen is being saved from a life of image-only, entering, in this case via abstraction, into installation.

Luke Jaaniste,
Feb 17, 2013, 7:29 AM
Luke Jaaniste,
Feb 17, 2013, 7:48 AM
Luke Jaaniste,
Feb 17, 2013, 7:47 AM