thesis post mortem

Some thoughts about the experience of my thesis performance and some of the thoughts about the process that I didn’t express in the presentation.

Although the production and process of my thesis project looked like a pcomp project most of the time, what I was thinking about and doing most of my work and research on was narrative/storytelling. I’m a little resistant to talk about this aspect, a little more self conscious about it, and I’ll try to explain why. In my presentation I said that I liked comics and cartoons a lot, and that’s true, but my background in literature and thinking about narrative is more broad. I care deeply about stories and I think it is important to have a critical approach to being a “storyteller.” I think that we are experiencing a sort of narrative fad right now, where everyone wants to define their works in terms of narrative and everyone wants to be a storyteller. That’s great in general and it leads to a lot of experimentation and interesting work, but it can be problematic in a sense that creating stories and understanding story form is given great attention, while a more critical understanding of the history of narrative and the way it works is not always present.

There are many traditions of storytelling which influence the kinds of stories being created now, but I think there are two main traditions that are in conflict with one another. One is the canon of literature that we all, for the most part, accept as the basis of narrative. Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Dickens, etc. The other is the kind of commercial narrative that was made popular by advertising and television and has become probably the dominant form of storytelling that we accept as good or proficient. This kind of story is very concerned with form, execution and effectiveness. The actual content is not as important. The same set of images and events could be used to sell soda or airplane tickets, but there is a very specific way that it has to be done for an audience to be correctly manipulated into desiring and purchasing a product. That format seems to often be blindly accepted in narrative contexts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be commercial, or at least derive some aspect of their authenticity with a claim at being creative, artistic or socially conscious. This seems to be a particularly relevant problem in the new media context that many people at ITP are working in, because we have some much control over the style and visual impact of the work. If we unthinkingly accept the conventions of these forms, we give up the critical attention that storytelling deserves. In my opinion, a good story is not one that manipulates an audience into paying attention or having an emotional response, but one that uses both form and content to give an audience some sort of insight into their lives or what it means to be a person and live in a society.

In Marianne’s Collective Narrative class we looked a lot of the kinds of new media stories and Marianne and other students in the class were pretty keen at sussing out when a work is more about narrative manipulation than a more honest or sincere presentation of content, or whatever you want to call it. We looked at this piece by Jonathan Harris where he goes Bhutan and gives everyone a balloon while filming them and creating an interactive website. There is no actual story in this piece. The viewer doesn’t learn anything about Bhutan or happiness as Harris intends. What we learn is that Harris is very good at creating an emotionally manipulative visual experience, but there is no apparent message from the piece. For Harris, the purpose of the story is just to give viewers the sense that he is a great storyteller. To me this is just another product of our current narrative fetish, as evidenced by his TED talk. To give an example of a new media story that has actual content, a guest speaker that came to class to show a website based work called Prison Public Memory which collects stories about a prison in Hudson, New York, that became a school for girls who were sort of delinquent or troubled. There are a lot of powerful stories contained in this site, historical information and insight, but the site itself looks like it could have been made by a high schooler with Dreamweaver.

So we kind of obsess about the narrative structure, having three acts, a stasis, conflict, resolution. There has to be a reversal and catharsis and all of these other things that people have had figured out for a long time but we can never seen to get away from. In Douglas Rushkoff’s Narrative Lab that was basically all we ever talked about it, how can we have that moment of catharsis in the non linear storytelling context provided by new media. We never asked what else could happen, or what the point of creating an emotional catharsis might be. I had some hope when we talked about Ibsen and the innovation in theatre that he championed, where the three act structure was subverted by long political diatribes replacing any resolution or emotional catharsis that the audience might have been hoping for, but somehow after we covered that, we just kind of forgot about it and moved on to McKee and how to create emotionally manipulative stories.

So what does this have to do with the stories that I wrote and the performance that my thesis became? A lot of the things I was talking about earlier in the semester, Marshall McLuhan, new media and narrative on the web, are related to the problems that I’ve outlined here. Technology has made it very easy to create visually and aurally rich story formats that tend to mimic the aesthetic and formula of advertising and television. But I’m almost always disappointed by the content of new media work, the actual stories. I’ve always been much more inspired by the kinds of stories that you find in text based message boards and fan fiction sites, where there is no use for emotional manipulation because there’s no product and no profit margin to be considered in the process. But it seems like people who are engaged in creating narrative as artists or writers and want to make a living doing have cynically accepted the commercial constraints of storytelling and are happy to ironically re-imagine them in a way that plays both sides of the fence by creating work that has a conventional form and resolution while teasing itself at the same time. This kind of ironic commercialism is old hat.

I think that the people who are writing stories on 4chan and other message boards, or writing fan fiction or other niche internet/community activities, are often more conscious of form and content that they’re given credit for. It’s all sort of post modern because of the way that the web encourages reference and repetition, but there are some writers who play with these conventions and framing devices.

I wanted my story to be entertaining and funny, but also reveal something about the way that people relate to each other through the internet, and the general use of narrative as a way of making sense of the world and the conflict inherent in doing so. Some people who saw my early tests and the performances themselves said that they wanted to see the robots fight each other, some kind of cute, absurd version of a Transformers movie (which are absurd enough on their own), which in a way is exactly the reaction I might want to illicit and then completely deny. Robots killing each other is certainly entertaining, and I’m going to say that any narrative that has robots killing each other in it is necessarily superficial or bad or something, but in and of itself, robots killing each other is not a story and it doesn’t really mean anything.

One reference that has come up a lot from other people talking about my project has been Samuel Beckett. I am a fan of Beckett and I’ve read most of his works at some point, a few of them a bunch of times, but I’ve been hesitant to really get into my thoughts about Beckett, because I think most would regret bringing it up once I got started. So, Beckett is relevant in terms of both style and themes and content. For many people, Beckett’s work is really just about one play, Waiting for Godot, which is often misinterpreted as basically a polemic against religion, meaning or spirituality. It’s more of a polemic against narrative form. The plot of Waiting for Godot is two guys are waiting for another guy and then he doesn’t show up. It’s not a three act structured plot—it’s a punch line. Beckett was mostly concerned not with telling people that god doesn’t exist, but exploring the reason we want there to be a god in the first place. The play is about different things of course. On one level, its about the inability of people to understand or relate to one another and the conflict with that inability and our inability to accept it. On another level, its about narrative form, and the role that it serves in our construction of meaning. In Beckett’s world, its the need for meaning and resolution that creates unhappiness and tragedy. Most of Waiting for Godot is really good slapstick humor. The part people remember is the lack of resolution. Beckett was more concerned with describing the human condition than telling a good story and his work does this relentlessly. For Beckett, the convention of form, with catharsis and resolution, are false, and his work is as much about that as it is about the way people relate to each other.

So there’s this conflict between structure and meaning. I don’t think that a story with a moment of catharsis or resolution is necessarily a bad or false story, but I think that we often dismiss the critical attention that storytelling in general deserves.



Author: owen ribbit


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