Your story: your medium

Christy Dena at the Digital Storytelling Conference

Involving direct participation, community arts and television, Digital Storytelling (DS) is also known as witness-contribution, personal storytelling, user-generated content (UGC), participatory TV, scrapbook TV, viewer TV, citizen TV and so on. DS uses digital equipment for personal storytelling or, as ACMI, hosting the Australian conference, puts it, “auto-biographical mini-movies.” DS does not usually involve sophisticated interactive systems nor does it push digital poetics. However, it is influencing mainstream entertainment more than its complex cousins.

Although events such as the National Storytelling Festival (USA; www.storytellingcenter.com/festival/festival.htm) have been promoting personal storytelling since 1973, there is only the one Digital Storytelling Festival, running since 1995 in San Francisco (www.dstory.com). The first DS conference was hosted by BBC Wales, in association with the Welsh Development Agency, in 2003 (see www.bbc.co.uk/wales/capturewales which features “RealMedia movies made and edited by people at digital storytelling workshops around Wales”).

Such is the interest, the conference at ACMI sold out before it began. According to registration data, the attendees were from a variety of sectors, mostly from schools, community organisations and academia and others: digital storytelling practitioners, new media artists, filmmakers and government personnel. The speakers were similarly representative and addressed broadcast convergence, new forms of storytelling, storytelling and the digital generation, and democratization and documentation of “voice.”

Not surprisingly some of the presentations were styled to combine fact and fiction. Nor was it a surprise, given the liberating nature of storytelling, that the keynote speaker for the conference was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In 1962, John O’Neal thought he’d have Civil Rights sorted out in about 5 years and then he could move onto his other passion, playwriting. Needless to say, he has continued to combine writing, performing and directing with his activism. O’Neal also participated in the first ACMI Youth Summit held parallel to the conference. He took the students and teachers through the renowned “story circle” technique before they set off to create their own digital stories. Guided by the themes of quality, diversity and respect, the students traversed the Melbourne CBD with cameras, enacting what Jean Burgess, a PhD candidate at QUT describes as “vernacular creativity.”

Like all art forms, digital works include a continuum of styles and approaches that is often subsumed in one overarching term. Ana Serrano, Director of Habitat, the new media lab at the Canadian Film Centre, outlined 6 ways audiences participate: they can “build” content, for example on Zed TV (www.zed.cbc.ca); “retell”, as with the highly praised locative arts project [murmur], (http://murmurtoronto.ca); “interpret”, as in educational simulation games such as Pax Warrior where you might find yourself in the position of a UN Commander in Rwanda (www.paxwarrior.com); “confess”, as in Things Left Unsaid (www.thingsleftunsaid.com) where you contribute your ‘secrets’ to a scenario; and “effect change” using eco-art at Seed Collective via your mobile phone (www.seedcollective.ca). The projects at Serrano’s laboratory bypass broadcasting and take to the streets, literally, utilising locative technologies.

Most of the practitioners present at the conference seemed, however, oddly unaware of new media arts. Chris Crawford, a first-breed game designer but now an ardent developer of “interactive storytelling”, patiently tried to explain to the participants that what they were doing was not interactivity. Their confused and sometimes offended reactions were understandable, considering the type of interactive storytelling Crawford is aiming at requires an approach and software that is still embryonic. Beyond the ability to change the interface or contribute content, Crawford’s newly launched software, Storytron (www.storytron.com), permits authors to create a storyworld in which the user then initiates events. Crawford’s system is unlike normal storytelling in that the author does not create a plot but rather a world and relationships between characters, ready for reaction when the user interacts with them as a protagonist.

There were many discussions about the effect of DS on the younger generation. Phillip Crawford, producer of knot at home, an interactive digital storytelling site to be launched in April and coming out of the BIG hART community projects (www.knotathome.com), shared his extensive experience of working with young people. It is not enough, he said, for them to tell their story once. They need to rewrite over time, only then can the “dominant story” be changed. Barbara Ganley from Middlebury College (US), asked what happens after a digital story is done? Interested in the “continuing, evolving, non-ending conversation”, Ganley championed the use of blogs. Discussing pedagogical benefits, she highlighted the need for students to form their own voice and feel “connected to self, peers and outside world.” Adrian Miles, active blog and vlog (video blog) practitioner and researcher at RMIT, described blogs as “the revenge of the word upon a twitch generation.” The critical difference, Miles observed, between DS and blogs is time-based: blogs are present stories and DS past ones. Miles also highlighted the shared paradigms of podcasts and vlogs and public access TV. What Miles didn’t mention, but which is relevant here, is Akimbo, a device that allows viewers to subscribe to vlogs and watch them on TV—anyone’s content, broadcast, indeed “pulled” by you to your TV.

Professor John Hartley, of QUT, reflected on the changes to television over the last 50 years. TV has moved from industrial production—a closed, expert system where ideas are protected, standardised, codified and delivered to passive audiences—to being a part of the “experience economy.” Consumers, indeed “prod-users” or “pro-sumers”, are (à la Charles Leadbeater’s “knowledge economy”) an economic force. Announcing a new UGC site, Freeload (www20.sbs.com.au/freeload), SBS’ Paul Vincent spoke about the potential (if changes to multi-channeling laws are in SBS’ favour) for digital storytelling to move off the gallery wall and onto digital TV. Broadcasting UGC through TV channels is a cost-effective way of producing content (if you mix user-vetted and gatekeeper moderation) and an efficient way of gathering viewers. David Vadiveloo, creator and director of the highly successful TV and web work Us Mob( www.usmob.com.au; see RT66, p20) warned that the move to broadcast UGC is potentially unjust if the storytellers are not remunerated.

As a balance to the technology-oriented approaches, Darren Tofts, media arts academic at Swinburne University of Technology and author of Interzone (RT 71, p22-23), warned against an “over identification with the singular notion of the digital.” Beyond a production and publication device, Tofts mused on symbiotic partnerships with technology and cited the machine-human relationships explored in Zoe Beloff’s interactive work, The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A (2001). In a wonderfully sensible observation, Tofts reassured his audience “you will get over the medium.” In other words, you will see beyond one manner of expression and what you can do with it. Indeed, despite the digital storytelling title, there is an increasing range of media, broadcast channels and art forms available to match the many voices heard throughout the conference.

First Person: International Digital Storytelling Conference, producer Helen Simondson in collaboration with Joe Lambert from the Center for Digital Storytelling (USA); Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Feb 3-5. Transcripts of the conference will be available online.

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 28

© Christy Dena; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006