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Friday. Conway Hall, London.

February is one of the month’s that punctuates my calendar with an event that I’ve been to every year since 2011.  Four of the five. That event is The Story. A conference of sorts. To me, it’s the counter-balance to This Is Playful, which takes place at the same venue, in October.

And so it was that I boarded a train to Farringdon, walked along the sunny Clerkenwell Road towards Holborn, arriving in time to greet a few friends and find a seat in the balcony in which to settle with my coffee (in a cup that was, later on, to be knocked from its perch and tumble into the hordes below. Apologies, although it was not my elbow or buttocks that sent the – thankfully empty – cup end-over-end to the lower floor).

A quick flick through the goodies provided – a pad created by The Ministry Of Stories, and a copy of Hack Circus by Leila Johnston – I switched my phone to silent and got my pen at the ready. Meg Pickard came on stage, got us all cheering, and then we were carried away on the storytelling sea…

The Ministry Of Stories
Having become a regular of the event, both on stage and selling their wares in the foyer, I’m always amazed at how much effort and creativity the Ministry packs into each year. And this time was no exception. They’ve been really busy helping kids get creative and learn about the power of stories. Two things leapt to the fore:

  1. Getting ‘underprivileged’ children to write lyrics and have them made into songs by musicians was a stroke of genius. The Share More Air initiative made for a powerful start to the day’s proceedings.
  2. The 159 Club. A sort of secret society Kickstarter, right down to the brown envelope. A simple request: give us £159 and we’ll bring you into the fold of the Ministry and you’ll help even more kids do fantastic stuff.

If they can get 159 people to donate, they’ll raise £25,000. A story within a story within a story. I can’t wait to see what they get done in 2014.

Bryony Kimmings
Performance Art. Not something you normally associate with The Story, but Bryony set out to kill more than a few stereotypes in her talk. She noted how consumerism has changed childhood, demoting the trait of kindness from the top spot in the list of things kids think are important and replacing it with ‘being famous’. Never has a single anecdote depressed me more.

Thankfully, Bryony had a tale to lighten the mood. It’s a story of levelling the playing field for fame and taking a project from the kitchen table to success. Along with her nine year-old niece, Bryony created a pop star (who’s also a palaeontologist) called Catherine Bennett and set her off on a journey.

Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard
I’m a fan of Nick Cave, I’ll happily admit it. He fascinates me. But the idea of his life story being told in film makes me cringe. Luckily, filmmakers Iain and Jane feel the same, which is why they took an entirely different approach to their “accidental film about Nick”, their biopic/rockumentary, 20,000 Days On Earth.

Drawn together by a shared hatred of things, Jane and Iain have spent the past 20 years in the visual arts, with the odd foray into sound. They set out to make a film that omitted everything they hated about films, particularly documentaries about rock stars. They also wanted to be ambitious. For their vision to come to life, they set their stall against four strategies:

  1. Reset Expectations – by refusing to see their film as a biography of Nick’s life, they were able to deal with this within the first minute of the film. 60 seconds showing his life to date. They got the expected stuff out of the way and got on with making the film they wanted to make.
  2. Embrace The Myth – don’t deconstruct the rock star, create a hyper-reality.
  3. Endurance – be willing to accept that some things will fail and carry on; also, they hired a psychoanalyst to grind Nick’s resolve down over two whole days so that he would give up the things that make for compelling viewing.
  4. Mnemonic Triggers – Unlocking and making meaningful, this is something that’s hard to do with a man who hates being interviewed. By placing Nick in an analogue archive of his life with hi biggest fan – nicknamed Nickopedia by the duo – made for an authentic footage, and gave the film the emotional pull it needed.

By allowing others into the process and removing the ego and hierarchy often present in filmmaking, Iain and Jane appear to have performed the impossible.

Kyle Bean
I’ve seen Kyle’s work before. In fact, I’ve Tweeted about it. What was interesting about his talk wasn’t just that we got to see some amazing work, and his love of juxtaposition.

London Underground Map of Straws

You see, Kyle describes himself as a tactile illustrator. What this means is he takes a 2D sketch, converts it into a 3D model and then photographs it (or has someone else photograph it) so that it can be used as a 2D image for an editorial piece. He opened up his process, democratising the way in which an idea can be brought to life.

Check out more of Kyle’s work

Kenyatta Cheese
Of the internet. That’s how Kenyatta was introduced. This is a man who lives for the culture of online. I can get down with that. If you don’t know Kenyatta’s work, he is responsible for the GIF Fairytale.

The Story of the GIF

The GIF is interesting, in that as a file format it has democratised culture. How? Unlike Flash, or even the jpg, the GIF allows people to take their culture with them. When they move from a forum to a blog, taking a GIF and posting it as a reaction for example.

Not bad for a 30 year-old format.

Stella Duffy
When a bundle of energy takes the stage, grabs people from the audience and organises them into a line to help tell the steps of storytelling before going to explain that they had an operation to remove a breast because cancer, well, you take notice.

Stella didn’t linger on this personal story, though. She told us another.

A story is one space that holds everything. In 1961, this concept of holding everything in one space was realised by Joan Littlewood with the Fun Palace. Its premise was to democratise art, seen in the Bubble City of 1968.

If you’ve got time, go read this great essay about Joan’s work, by Ken Turner

Stella not only introduced us to the concept, but also how she wanted to bring it to life in 2014. She and her creative partners are allowing anyone to host their own Fun Palace, democratising the event. There are five things it must be or offer:

  1. Free
  2. Local
  3. Innovative
  4. Transformative
  5. Engagement

Her dream is for two days in October to bring democracy to events, art, to the local community. And ultimately for people to have fun – setting up and doing the event, as well as being part of one.

Get involved

Barnaby Smyth
I’d never heard of a Foley artist. But I’ve long appreciated what they do, without even realising it.

Named after its inventor, Jack Donovan Foley, it’s the technique for producing bespoke sounds for TV and film soundtracks. Seriously. The footsteps, movement of clothing, eating sounds and everyday effects such as hand touches and so on, they are all created by someone specifically for a film or TV show.

It’s the job of someone such as Barnaby to make things a reality, democratising the experience of watching a film or television show.

Barnaby then went on to not only recreate something live on stage – including ripping up celery to imitate the gory sounds of a an animal feasting on flesh – he showed us a clip from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with before and after moments.

Let’s just say that without a Foley artist, entertainment would be anything but. I won’t look at a cinema or television screen again in the same way.

Bill Wasik
I know Bill as the editor for Wired in the US. I was about to find out something else about him in the course of his talk.

Bill talked about how stories go viral. He even asked for a show of hands from the audience to judge how many people had had such an experience. I’d had one with My Earliest Memory when it was tweeted by Stephen Fry and it’s both scary and amazing; a true definition of awesome. He also mentioned Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of Buzzfeed who was enlightened by his own experience of going viral when he asked Nike to put the word ‘sweatshop’ on a pair of sneakers back in 2001, as part of a marketing campaign they were running at the time.

When someone shares in something, it’s like an endorsement. Like those early-web chain letters that you’d have in your Hotmail inbox back in 2000. It was these that got Bill thinking: could you make this physical?

And so Flashmobs were born. Bill democratised the production of content that captures the imagination of the wider public, although let’s just point out that T-Mobile killed this and you should never, ever suggest anyone does one. Oreo may have done the same for right/real-time marketing, but that remains to be seen and a story for another blog post.

Of course, it’s easy to see meme and viral as ephemeral, but Bill’s experience suggests persistence is what makes something go viral. And it’s the fact that flashmobs raise the house lights on the audience – everyone can feel a part of the experience and shape it. A lesson to learn is sharing the data captured with everyone – quantifying what’s been done is a must. The feedback loops are what drive this experimental culture we’re currently experiencing. Don’t ignore it (or do so at your peril).

Bill wants to hear about viral moments, do you have one? Get in touch

Tony Ageh
The older audience members were taken back to the days of the Two Ronnies. The segment of that comedy sketch show involving Ronnie Corbett, a chair and a rambling anecdote.

That’s not to say Tony didn’t have a point. He did. Lists.

  • List are democratic
  • They help to break things down
  • Tasks get more manageable
  • They can help if you’re crap at project management (which Tony suggested he was, even if his most successful project began as a list).

Tony went on to tell us a story of a time at the BBC when someone had failed. It had fallen to Tony to sack the man, but instead he took him the all night bar at Bush House and told him he wasn’t leaving until they’d come up with an idea so good it would be impossible for him to get the sack.

Long rambling anecdote short, that idea was a list. A list of programmes that the public could watch when they wanted to. Available on the internet. A list you now know as BBC iPlayer, a piece of software that is one of the most democratic products to have been released in recent times.

Meg Rosoff
Storytelling is democracy in its purest sense. Anyone can tell a story – Meg suggested that you didn’t even need to be able to plot once you’d worked out they could be stolen! Stories can let you become famous without the need for a skill, she said. I’m not convinced that’s true, though, so I’ll put it down to Meg’s self-deprecation.

Understanding that stories are not owned by anyone means that it frees the writer, or teller, of stories and let’s them find the connection with the reader or audience. She described this as ‘throughness’, similar to the feeling a rider has with the horse, that they are one being. It’s this feeling that creates resonance.

To do this, we should take notice of our unconscious brain, Meg implored. It’s yours; no one else owns it or controls it. Set it, and the stories it contains, free.

Gruff Rhys
As leader of the Super Furry Animals, Gruff probably doesn’t need any introduction. Which was good, because the 20 minutes that followed went as far away from what we’d been treated to previously as to feel like a parallel universe.

We got a tall story, perhaps a shaggy dog story, about how the American interior was discovered by a Welshman called John Evans in the late 1770s. Gruff took us on a journey of discovery, into a land that was at the time anything but democratic.

He also treated us to a song with more key changes that the rest of the world’s songs put together. It was fantastic, even if it was the single part of the day that departed from the democracy theme I’d caught bubbling out through the rest of the talks. Then again, a true democracy allows for this, so perhaps… just perhaps.

Philip Larkin
Not the poet. Which, I think, did at least disappoint a few in the audience, even though the poetic one has been dead since 1985. No, this Philip is a comedy writer and producer of short-form video we all know as a Vine.

Philip talked us through the notion that the internet has caused the world population to become distracted, to be more stupid than previous generations. He argued, rightly, that the opposite has happened. It hasn’t constrained us, for two reasons:

    1. Distraction is great way to allow great ideas to bubble up
    2. The internet has liberated us by allowing more people to create

He also talked about how short videos, when strung together, have the ability to create different, interesting narratives. His own What Does This Button Do? series is an example.

Finally, over-running on his time slot, Philip created one of his famous Button Vines.

I’ll admit that, at this point, my bottom was getting numb from sitting on the wooden benches at the back of Conway Hall. Then Meg announced that Lisa Salem was coming on, so I endured. Next year I think I’ll take a cushion.

Lisa Salem
I knew of Lisa’s work before she climbed on stage to talk. It was enough to keep me on my seat for a little longer. She opened her talk with the idea that we are becoming separated from we are, that there is a disappearance of context for most people.

So, she set out to walk across and around Los Angeles pushing a baby buggy that contained a video camera. If someone chose to walk with her, she would interview them and the conversations they had. Then she uploaded them.

Soon enough, she began to get emails from people who lived vicariously through her Walk LA With Me project. In her own way, she was democratising emotional connections. In its own little way, I believe that my own project, My Earliest Memory does the same.

It also reminded me of the James Frey book, Bright Shiny Morning.

Lisa’s next project takes the idea of shared human connections to the next level. She wondered about how someone could experience a connection with a fellow human at a moment they feel most alone. And that moment is when they are on hold to a company’s customer service department.

How would you feel if you were speaking to a complete stranger, whom you couldn’t see and wouldn’t know, while waiting to sort out being overcharged by your mobile carrier, or utility company? Maybe Lisa will be the first to find out.

Alan Rusbridger
If anyone can have the final word on democracy and stories, it is Alan. As editor of the Guardian, he was part of the team that released the news about Snowden and the NSA.

We didn’t really get any further revelations as Matt Locke, curator of The Story, interviewed him. However, Alan’s words reminded us to think about what democracy means, that stories serve to break us from the daily grind and the spell that the modern world has us under. And that, occasionally, along comes a story that simply has to be told, no matter what.

And without people like Edward Snowden these stories may never see the light of day.

And so it was, with that thought, I took myself over to the pub, supped a pint or four with old friends and new. The day was over. Another chapter completed.

One final note
It says a lot about a conference or event that, a week or more on and the day is still having an effect on me. Thoughts are bubbling up all the time. I’ve drawn on at least one of things I heard and used it to bring an idea to life. I don’t know how Matt does this year after year and still manages to make it a worthwhile event. I’m just glad he does.