On Friday 18th February 2011, a motley crew of story enthusiasts gathered at the Conway Hall in London to learn and be inspired. This is the second year Matt Locke has produced ‘The Story‘ and it was, once again, a fantastic event.
These are my minutes of the day – it’s a lot of text but I just wanted to share the experience. Read this potted version if you don’t want to read the details. Apologies for any inaccuracies.
Using a technique from The Ministry, the audience (considerably older than the usual participants) contributed suggestions to invent a monster. It became The Pedicurist.
The Hoxton shop is based on similar outlets for pirates in San Francisco and time travellers in LA; if you’re interested, you can buy a Ministerial position. No questions asked.
It was lovely to hear about such a happy, creative project. Pass the Crayola, please.
Matt Adams: Blast Theory
Matt talked about interactive, mixed reality games he’s created: a lottery in which you ‘won’ the chance to be kidnapped; a heist movie controlled by mobile phone, you play the lead; ‘Rider Spoke’, a far more sedate affair that directs cyclists to find hiding places.
‘Ivy4Evr‘ is an SMS drama that draws the user into ‘real’ conversation with the virtual star. Commissioned by Channel 4 Education, the project is for teenagers and pushes boundaries using private communication, free from the scrutiny of teachers, parents and friends. Quick and immersive, it’s cleverly structured.
‘Ivy’ texts back and forth with participants, discussing friendship, family and sex. The depth of conversation depends on how much the teenage participant replies, and umpteen branches of chat are possible.
I liked the smart technicalities of this but, having engaged in online communication with young people during the course of my work at the BBC, I’m unnerved by the engagement in this project. Even Matt admits that the boundaries were grey. Some of the kids’ replies involved a great deal of thought and empathy, and it scared me a little to see the details some would discuss with a random person at the end of a text. I know they were safe and there were strict guidelines but it made me uncomfortable.
He commented on the lack of trust we have in news providers: we get the big stories but it doesn’t add up and we need to hunt for details. What we feel about the story is the most important drive for us.
Fascinated by the fragments we miss out on, Adam has made films that show far more than we usually see on TV. He showed a couple of moving, disturbing clips that I don’t even want to think about.
He wants us to stop being naïve, to reject the whimsy. As someone who is ridiculously empathetic, I’m often guilty of hiding from the bad news. I think we need the likes of The Pedicurist to help us get through the constant drain of news, watered down or not watered down. And my whimsical brain has undoubtedly missed the finer points of his presentation.
Karl James – The Dialogue Project
We’re told Karl collects stories. He’s a storylistener, not a storyteller, and he gave great examples of the importance of timing and knowing when to shut up. Some nuggets he shared: “listening well makes others articulate” and “as you listen, imagine the words evaporate; all that’s left is the change the words have made, what we’re left with”.
His words really spoke to me but I felt a bit of a fraud as I scribbled down all of his words onto paper. I need to see things to remember them.
A project investigating school outcasts challenged the kids and Karl found they all just wanted to be listened to.
He played brilliant bits of audio he’d recorded with individuals who had suffered trauma. Both were incredibly moving, both demonstrated how listening revealed a story that seemed destined to be untold. Both helped the speakers understand their own situations and drew Karl further into their stories. And both proved that the story is also in the silence.
“Sometimes the story is not where/what we expect it to be.”
“Thank you for listening.”
You can listen, too: Karl has put his presentation on his blog.
Cornelia told us the stories behind her art. A charming, funny presentation that made me appreciate her work far more than if I’d seen it in a gallery.
A collection of silver objects that she had run over by a steam roller was inspired by Carry On movies, Charlie Chaplin, and Tom and Jerry. You don’t think of sculptors being inspired by cartoon characters – I liked her honesty.
Two metal shapes destined to become a Colt gun were put on display – they look sleek and light without the violent inners they were intended to hold. Different people read different stories from this piece of art: the pro-gun brigade thought it was “beautiful”, the anti-gun lobby were pleased Cornelia had “aborted” the gun.
She has produced a work that shows off, among others, Crippen’s medicines, Babbage’s brain, Freud’s pillow, Emily Bronte’s quill and Einstein’s chalk. Showing us the listing for some lead soldiers she’s using, she left us with another true observation, “eBay is full of stories”.
Appealing to both my love of stories and my inner geek, Phil described his adaptation of Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diary. Gyford reproduces Pepys’ entries every day online… they just happen to be 343 years after the words were penned.
He describes Pepys as an unheroic hero – his actions weren’t always admirable but only in his diary does he reveal secret doubts and fears, making him more endearing.
Phil has calculated that over 2300 people are mentioned in the diary, making it seven times more complicated than The Wire. The website is vast and allows the reader to enjoy the story in many different ways: chronologically, by location, by characters.
Pepys has his own Twitter feed but, naturally, cannot engage with his followers. Fans have created fun Twitter accounts for other characters, who communicate with each other in relation to the latest diary entry!
His story is also told via an iPhone app, RSS and Live Journal. Readers can comment on the diary but instead of comments they are “annotations”, keeping the correct tone. Contributors also research and write encyclopedia entries. I’m particularly fascinated by the fact he’s only had to ban one user in eight years! Oh, it’s a far cry from life as a host on a BBC messageboard.
Paul Bennun and Nick Ryan
The men behind Papa Sangre talked a lot about games in pitch black rooms, games I do not understand. The only games I can deal with are Tetris and Angry Birds so please bear with me and excuse holes in my report of their presentation.
Everyone has a different story, built in their imagination. Listening to music in a park will give you one story; in a studio, a different story. It becomes a combination of sensory (witnessing the present), cognitive (learning/remembering from the past), and anticipation (for the future).
Their gaming research noted that some people are not as good at navigating in sound than they thought they’d be but blind gamers were too good, completing the games in record time!
One of Nick’s latest projects is the new Ken Follett ebook, adding another dimension: audio. Sounds of soldiers and gun-fighting on a battlefield aim to draw people further into the story.
“Wear things you don’t mind having fake blood on for the rest of your life”. More gaming so another thing I didn’t fully appreciate. Zombie LARP (Live Action Role Play) is, I think, a game involving real live humans, plastic guns and very vivid imaginations.
I liked her description of it being a Story Machine. Her team provides a set piece, there’s sometimes costumes and props, there’s an alarming variety of plastic guns (they looked like Fisher-Price but I suspect they’re a cool brand that isn’t aimed at toddlers). I also loved the hand-written slides and funny illustrations of stick figures having their brains devoured.
I learned a brand new word: froth. It means to bore the hell out of your friends about the antics you got up to at a LARP event. And this is the bit that did kind of make sense to me: all these little interactions at a game become the story. There’s no obvious beginning, middle and end but the big messy experience turns into a linear thing when everyone gets together to recount it. I still don’t understand why but at least I learned some new words and I got a foam bullet for my trouble.
One more thing: if you’re going to fire foam bullets around a packed venue, cleverly scribble your URL on them. I have one. It hurt a little.
Lucy created a story about herself by conducting an audit of information from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. She admits it was bad research but she turned it into a book so it certainly worked on one level. Questions ranged from the innocuous (“where did we last meet?”) to financial and judgemental (“does Lucy have much of an impact on the art world?”) but people obediently filled them in and the answers built a picture. As far as we know, no friendships were ruined in the making of this product.
The Lix Index was a website that gathered Lucy’s own feelings and observations every day and turned them into measurable factors. Books, fear, tube delays, compliments, pay days, alcohol… these all added up (somehow) to give a daily figure. People would read the website and ask after her if the number appeared surprisingly high or low!
“You can go anywhere with a camera, you can gatecrash people’s lives”. It hadn’t occurred to me until he said that but maybe that’s why I love being a photographer – I’m dead nosey.
He took us through black and white pictures of life in the 70s (colour was regarded as ‘snapshots’ then). The stories are in the details – the gathering of ‘The Ancient Order of the Henpecked Husbands’, the wily fox hiding from hunters who are looking in the wrong direction, and the simple picture of a rug in front of a fire. It comes to life when you learn that the rug is placed there only once a year.
There was plenty of humour in his observations, on camera and off. Many reminded me of Elliott Erwitt‘s photos, and that’s a very good thing.
“Photos capture the truth about who we are”.
He’s compiled a book of photographs from across the world but it’s not what you’d expect from a travel book; every picture is a portrait of himself, shot by a different photographer. It’s amazing to see how many ways you can capture one person and some of the results are hilarious: Martin appearing to be in the mouth of a shark, as a reflection in a huge wine glass, in Jesus’ arms, or his face superimposed on a nearly-nude body builder, muscles pumped.
Graham Linehan and Cory Doctorow
First off, let me tell you that I made an idiot of myself at the pub by thanking Mr Linehan and then wittering. Just wittered. I don’t witter at actors or pop stars or entrepreneur geniuses but this man wrote The IT Crowd and Father Ted. Sorry for being a fan girl, @glinner.
Anyway, back to The Story: Graham was in conversation with Cory Doctorow.
The internet plays a big part in Linehan’s storytelling. Back in the days of Father Ted, he bought loads of magazines for inspiration. Now he turns to the internet and uses it to build stories.
He admits it’s great for procrastination but his online trawl of all things weird and wonderful results in brilliant television. His research for each series apparently involves six months of pottering about on the internet. (By that measure, I must be due to script a top TV show any day now.)
Linehan likes big set piece moments (e.g. Dougal driving a milk float and Moss getting stuck in an amusement arcade toy-grabbing machine) and creates stacks of cards (colour-coded by character) to help form a storyline.
He gets distracted trying to find something on Awkward Family Pet Photos. It’s a photo that looks like it’s taken at a $5 pop-up shop in an American shopping mall, a photo of a man with a fat cat. The cat just happens to be sitting on the knee of a giant Easter bunny. Linehan is determined to get Roy and Moss into this situation! “The cat’s going to die and Roy and Moss have to show it a good time. It’s an eight year old cat so what do eight year olds like? They take the cat to see Santa. They’re in floods of tears. It’s tragic.”
He’s recently been using Basecamp to collaborate with other writers (“people who make me laugh on Twitter”), starting with a blog or an image, allowing a conversation to grow in the comments. It takes it some way to becoming a story.
Cory asked him about Twitter on Father Ted night, when he chatted with fans whilst the shows were on TV.
He turned to Twitter for help during a last minute rewrite of ‘The IT Crowd’. On the day of recording a courtroom scene (Roy had been kissed on the bottom and sued the culprit), @Glinner asked the world of Twitter to find him alternative words for ‘arse’ in return for a credit on the DVD. He used a few, his favourite being ‘bike rack’.
Described as a comedian, author and futurologist, he had the hard task of following Linehan. But he was brilliant. Funny, moving, charming and uplifting, Mark told us about his new book ‘An Optimist’s Tour of the Future‘. It wasn’t just a plug for sales, it was like he was on a mission to fill our lives with hope. I know that sounds twee and I don’t care.
These quotes may be from Mark, they may be from an aviator he interviewed. I apologise for the vagueness but I just liked them: “Never look at limitations – look at it as opportunity” and “I like this planet, it’s where all my stuff is”.
How we tell the story of the future is so important. We’re bombarded with messages that make us imagine a negative future:
“It won’t be very good if you vote for them”; “The world is violent and unsafe”; “Things are changing too fast”; “You are alone, make the best of it”; “Vote for me”; “Buy my paper”; “Life was better in the past”.
This bleak commentary has always been the norm. Optimism can seem like naivety.
So Mark wants us to consider this: once you think about something it can become material, pretty quickly. He cites the example of The President of the Maldives, once a tortured prisoner, now a world leader, having seen the future as a very different place.
“This could be a renaissance, not just damage limitation. We have everything to play for.”
Some facts he shared:
Life expectancy is increasing.
Violence has declined (it’s news because it’s an exception).
There are rapid advances in health and medicine (check out The Personal Genome Project that is working to use genetic codes to create personalised treatments and lifestyle changes).
Food per capita has increased.
The population is stabilising (some economists are worrying about it falling).
He talked of crazy inventions like flatulence filtering underwear and artificial trees. Like Adam, he also said it’s hard sifting fact from opinion in the news.
“Change will happen. We can try to influence it in a positive way. We can try to stop it happening or we can ignore it. This is our story, we innovate and invent. We can make a different narrative for our future.
The future is here, it’s all around us, just not evenly distributed yet.
The future cannot happen until we change our minds to meet it.
Give up the cynicism. Cheer up, it may happen.”
I can’t do justice to this. When I write it it’s just words but when he tells it it’s exciting and meaningful. Please look him up.
Thanks to everyone for making a great Story. I look forward to next year.