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DS7 digital storytelling conference review 2012

The George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling hosted this year’s annual Digital Storytelling Festival DS7 at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on Thursday 7th June 2012. It has been held in each of the previous six years at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. This is my annual cribsheet, looking back at the day. There are links to past festivals at the end of this post.

Annie Correal Cowbird, opened the batting at DS7 and she made everyone gasp when she revealed that her father had been kidnapped and held hostage in Colombia. You can hear about what happened in Episode 409 of This American Life.

Cowbird was hatched when Annie met Jonathan Harris and they set about making a home for people’s personal stories. Cowbird is one of the best-designed websites I know of and its user interface leads you gently through the typing, adding a picture, choosing keywords, etc. Jon and Dave Lauer have done a great architectural job with this site as it’s fiendishly difficult to make it so simple to contribute.

Annie’s critical of the way some individuals promote ‘brand me’ on social networks:
“Look how gorgeous my girlfriend is / my vacation was”. In contrast, she identifies four traits of the kind of personal stories found on Cowbird: personal, deep, vulnerable and surprising.

These traits were reinforced when she shared some of the Cowbird community’s personal stories. I love this one because of the way the gorgeous image of Angelique hypnotizes me while I listen to Scott Thrift’s frank (or personal, deep, vulnerable and surprising) account of how the two of them courted each other online before meeting, falling in love and the way things turned out (no spoiler).

I’ve only clicked ‘Loved’ on three stories on Cowbird so far and I was surprised to learn that one of them – this one from the UK: I heard you by S R Cloud – was the most popular of all on the site: “I want parents to throw their newspapers in the bin. Switch their gizmos off. And talk. To each other. To their kids. ” – S R Cloud.    Hear, hear.

During the morning, I went to hear Darcy Alexandra of Dublin Institute of Technology talking about her work with women who’d gone to live in the Republic of Ireland and who were waiting to hear if they could remain living in that country, or whether they would be deported. One of Darcy’s main interests is in visual ethnographic practice. How to illustrate a digital story when you have no images is a challenge. The storytellers Darcy worked with didn’t have a personal photographic archive because they’d left their homes suddenly. Darcy worked with the collective of women to develop a set of artistic images that conveyed their current circumstances.

Bridget’s story – which isn’t published online – was about working long days in Dublin with no breaks, six days a week, sick or not. At lunchtime she ate a sandwich standing up while still working and her employer made all sorts of cruel threats to her. After watching her story, I’m sure I was not alone in being glad to be offered  a chance by Darcy to send a personal message to Bridget, written on a blank postcard.

After lunch, Natasha Armstrong of Historypin spoke about this site which encourages people to pin their photos and memories onto a map. I’m looking forward to diving into this and exploring its capacity for embedding people’s stories onto hyperlocal websites.

Joe Lambert Digital Center for Storytelling spoke next. Joe’s presentation followed hot on the heels of his iPhone / iPad digital storytelling workshop in London. Alex Henry made a story on this workshop and you can read about her experience on her Curiosity Creative blog.

“Everyone has something to teach and something to learn” – this is part of a CDS vision statement by Arlene Goldbard and this collaborative learning ethos was underlined throughout Joe’s presentation.

He showed a slide listing the hardest lessons he’s learned on the essential nature of story work. Numbers three and four were “How they said it is how it should be said” and “Don’t leave fingerprints“. Writing as one who has facilitated digital storytelling workshops, that’s really difficult: to keep quiet, accept and see what others in the group contribute.

Joe listed the eclectic human, communication, organisational and technical skills that make up the facilitative skillset for digital storytellers. He also spoke of the issues and approaches associated with a continuum of collaboration.

He rounded off his session by playing out – from his iPhone – one of the iPhone stories made in London over the Diamond Jubilee weekend.

The final breakout of the day was about working in the corporate sector, by Pam Sykes from South Africa and Helena Lopes from Portugal. Pam showed some stories made by workers at the call centre of a vehicle tracking company. The board wanted to know what its staff thought of the company, so they commissioned Pam to run the workshop.

The workers didn’t hold back in their feedback and raised issues like how being made to ask permission to go to the toilet during shifts made one person feel that he was back in kindergarten. I predict corporate digital storytelling will grow as an industry. Pam’s advice to companies funding such work is: “don’t take it from the marketing budget, take it from the training and development budget.”

I was disappointed to have to miss these other breakouts: Steve Bellis & Patrizia Braga of DeTales; Natasha James of Breaking Barriers; Alyson Fielding of Pyuda Ltd.; Mike Wilson and Sarah Chapman of Project Aspect; Barrie Stephenson of Digistories and Bridget Foreman of Riding Lights Theatre Company; Matt Chilcott of Communities 2.0

Apart from the formal sessions, DS7 was a good chance to catch up with digital storytelling activities from other attendees and a chance to meet up with old friends. George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling were great hosts and Chapter was a great venue. I hope to see you next year at DS8.

If you’d like to read about DSCymru’s previous conferences, here are the links: DS6 (2011), DS5 (2010), DS4 (2009), DS3 (2008) and DS2 (2007) too. Unfortunately, the record of DS1 is no longer online.

One Comment

  • srcloud

    Hi Gareth,

    A while ago you were kind enough to say some nice things about a story I published on Cowbird (entitled, ‘I heard you’).

    I have decided to throw caution to the wind and to try to become the writer I always wanted to be (cripes!). To this end, I quit my job 5 months ago and I’ve set up a blog to, amongst other things, discuss my experience, my motivations etc (clearly one of them was to spend more time with my son). Anyway, it would be great if you got in touch. (You seem very experienced and I am sure I could learn a lot from you.)

    I’d like to say thank you for your review once again. When I came across it on the internet it made my day.



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