MIT4 Talk Summary–Socrates Meets Borges: Digital Storytelling around the Liberal Arts Campfire

Héctor and I raced down to Boston Saturday to present at MIT4 (he wrote a brilliant paper, by the way, with very little help from me at all), met up briefly with the inimitable Joe Lambert and met some other interesting folks working away at bringing digital storytelling to the academic universe. Of course the two of us trying to say anything particularly useful about digital storytelling in the 20 minutes allotted, and in a space equipped only with an overhead projector was a bit much (M.I.T.??), but Héctor managed to articulate the context and a bit of the outcomes–pretty remarkable feat!

Here’s more on what I touched upon (or would have with more time):

One student’s journey through storytelling in the Fall 2004 Artswriting class: Writing in New Media Facilitates A Student’s Exploration of the Artist-Critic’s Role

In Writing Across the Arts, I am trying to get students to think about what it means to experience the arts and then to write about them authentically, not necessarily from the position of scholarship, but from the position of being a lover of the arts who has something to communicate to the world about that experience. I encourage my students to crawl around inside the tools of the writer–in our case all the tools of the computer that will help them to understand the relationship between artist, artform, critic and audience.

Because we live in an era that privileges images over text, (see Susan Sontag’s NYT article about the images of Iraqi prisoner abuse; George Lucas in Edutopia; Douglas Kellner on New Media and New Literacies: Reconstructing Education for the New Millennium), we must train them in the grammar of image, the tension between image and text, equipping them with the critical apparatus necessary to read New Media. In one assignment, I ask students to take text out of the telling of story or the writing of an essay. What happens to their understanding of how an image conveys its meaning? What do they learn about structure, argument, narrative, voice? After reading excerpts from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the students played around with Stories without Words and hypertext essays. Both kinds of writing run counter to their training in their other classes where they are still writing traditional text-only analytical essays.

In Julina’s hypertext experiment, she puts pressure on final words, on journeys out beyond the small screen as she reviews a performance of a visiting dance troupe that moved in much the same way upon the walls of the new library.

In her Story without Words, Julina examines the dialogic relationships between word and image,storyteller and reader, playing with our notions of story, setting, structure, chronology. She comments simultaneously on art, museums, and stories while producing art. Even the title “Story without Words” directs us only into reading the images as a story, and underscores the lack of text, the significance of that lack. We are not told what story or what it means. She is asking the reader to participate in the writing of the story through the reading of it–and through the commenting on it.

Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice). Julina becomes Walter Benjamin’s stage rather than screen actor–adjusting her work in response to the audience. She then writes a poem. And more feedback floods in, leading her past this project, finally, and into her final project of the semester, “An Ekphrasis Cycle,” in which she pushes images against poem directly, and vice versa, in a spiralling cycle, but more on that later. Here we can see Lévy’s collective intelligence as well as efficacy at work, both for her–her ideas matter and touch her peers–and for her peers, who see her revise her work in response to their suggestions. And we, participants or lurkers, witness the entire process much as she witnesses herself watching fans watching rock stars in her next, digital storytelling, project.

The blog reduces the threat of what Christine Rosen terms “Ego-casting”, the narrowing of what one takes in according to taste and perspective, since on a blog, anyone can comment–all possible perspectives are invited in. Her own perspective remains open to divergent responses, and the teacher’s hope is that she will continue to seek many points of view, many readings of a text and the world as she moves through her life.

In her digital story, “Watching Rock Fans Watching Rock Stars,” Julina jumps into the boundaries of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalusand Mann’s, Tonio Kroger,participating while watching herself participate, commenting while enjoying, wandering about the boundaries between communities where “radically new insights often arise” (Wenger) . She becomes the subject-artist-critic as she tries on the roles of poet, dj, rock star, groupie (Vila–see his MIT paper for a fuller reading of this digital story). Posting the story within the class cluster of digital stories extends the commentary and the interactive experience. These stories butt up against one another, talking with each other on the virtual canvas of the blog post. The students use digital stories to read culture and to read the artistic process. They become careful yet bold critical readers of and writers about New Media while creating art with it. Julina enters the Borgesian labyrinth while commenting on her journey.

In her final project, “Ekphrasis Cycle,” coupling word and image without sound or movement, Julina moves into entirely new territory, daring to exploit the lessons learned from the previous exercises, exploring Roy Ascott’s “dispersed authorship,” this time not only by inviting the viewer in to witness and comment, but by bringing together photographs of different artists, convening them as story, through the links made by her poems. The whole creates a cycle, a kind of story she has not before written. She collaborates with the artists she brings into the project, and her writing moves in response to their influence. “Welcome to Julina’s Ekphrasis Cycle” she writes on the opening screen, “The preface is at the end.” She turns the narrative structure around, but by announcing it, alleviates some of the anxiety produced for the viewer. She writes, “I am writing in response to visual images, yes, but also using them as tools.” Her project is a creative disruption of the traditional academic essay as it examines ekphrasis by engaging in its practice.

A response left by a student (the class tutor) illustrates the way a blog through its return to a more reflective, letter-writing mode, allows her peers to react thoughtfully and then to comment:

I had a really tough time responding to you while we were conferencing because your poem hit home with me. I knew it was very difficult to discuss the poem without bringing in my personal feelings, which is why I kept asking you to direct me in the way you wanted me to respond to it. But through the beauty of weblogs, that’s exactly what I can do… I can edit out what I don’t want to convey. Brilliant, isn’t it?”

She, too, is commenting on the writing act as she writes.

Julina leaves us at the end of her “Ekphrasis Cycle,” with these words:

“I invite you to look for the silence behind and within the language, to find the syntax between the positive and negative spaces of image, and to find what is human in all of it, for this was, from the outset, my intention. To show you a different picture of yourself.”

Her work exemplifies Lev Manovich’s asking “how can New Media allow us to experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our expereince in new ways, thus enriching our lives.”


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