Storytellers, objects and the power of stories: notes from The Story 2011

Storytellers, objects and the power of stories: notes from The Story 2011

This year’s The Story, held yesterday in London’s Conway Hall, hosted 15 speakers over five hours, each addressing the general theme of ‘storytelling’.  Featuring artists, writers and gamers, the talks covered a myriad of story-ish situations. Within these diverse presentations, a few key concepts seemed to crop up again and again, namely:

  • we are all storytellers and storylisteners,
  • how objects encapsulate, spark or create stories and
  • stories that define and control our lives.

We are all storytellers and story listeners

The day’s host and ‘interloper’ Margaret Robertson (@Ranarama) kicked off the event by announcing that we are all inadvertent storytellers, whether we realise it or not. Even something as simple as what you choose to wear – or not to wear – tells a story about who you are. Robertson chose to wear a fifties-style silk peach dress and a flat cap. What story does that tell?

Her sentiments were mirrored by Karl James’s (@2plus2makes5) statement that we are all storylisteners, either casually or professionally. James himself is a professional storylistener. His The Dialogue Project is a powerful initiative to capture detailed personal stories from a range of people. James positions himself in a unique role. He’s not a journalist looking for a story. He’s not a friend providing unqualified support. Instead, he’s a generous listener, whose actions enable others to articulate their innermost thoughts. His approach certainly seems to work: more than one of the recordings he shared brought a tear to my eye. But more of that in a bit.

How objects encapsulate, spark or create stories

Artist Cornelia Parker works with found objects. There are so many objects already in the world, she says, why would you create any more? She finds objects which have their own story the most appealing. Her art is full of these – from burnt remnants of churches struck by lightning and arson, to a microscopic image of a record owned by Hitler, to objects she buys from eBay and alters or releases in alien situations. My favourite example of this is the Roman coins Parker has buried in the American state of Georgia, which she mischieviously suggests might confuse a future archaeologist. She exhibits these transformed objects alongside their original eBay listings, which detail their provenance and previous life stories.

“eBay is full of stories.” Cornelia Parker

Parker works with the past and future stories of objects themselves. Mary Hamilton (@newsmary), on the other hand, sees objects as things which create a story. In her Zombie Live Action Role Play (LARP) game, Hamilton skips the development of detailed character backstories, special powers and personality traits. Instead she simply givies each player a toy guns. The moment you pick up a gun, she says, you start to generate a character and a story. And the type of gun you get (and believe me there are a surprisingly numerous amount of options) makes a difference to both.

Stories that define and control our lives

Now back to that teary-eyed moment… Karl James listens to people who have experienced something ‘major’ in their life. The examples he shared included rape, major illness and disenfranchisement. One thing many of them had in common was the potential for the story of their trauma to become something which defined them.

“I used to tell people I was raped before I even told them my name.” Jane, The Dialogue Project

James wasn’t the first to mention this concept. Matt Adams of Blast Theory shared this quote right at the start of the day:

“A story limits the life of a person to the things someone else can say about him.” Edmund Jabès [thanks to Andrew Losowsky for the attribution. Anyone else know the actual source?]

And four hours later, there it was again, in Mark Stevenson’s (@OptimistonTour)stirring session to close the show. Mark has spent the past 18 months researching and writing An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. It’s a jaunt around the science and technology which does – and will – shape our future world, and a call to arms for the development of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning in politics and journalism.  The future’s bright, says Mark, but only if you can tell the right story about it. For years, we’ve all been told how bad things are, or how bad they’re going to be. If you can’t imagine a better future, you’re not going to be able to make it. But get the story straight and things could be very different…

“If you don’t know how to sift fact from opinion, you’re going to be in trouble.” Mark Stevenson

Surely, that’s the strongest argument for the power and importance of stories, storytelling and storylistening?

The Story was a one-day conference about stories and story-telling, organised by Matt Locke. Check out last year’s event on The Story website. And keep an eye out to sign up for next year’s day.


Karl James
February 19, 2011 4:49 pm

Great thoughts /

Thank you for listening.


February 19, 2011 5:12 pm

Karl, you were one of the highlights. Loved your “the words evaporate as you read them” slide as well as the audio snippets.

Mary Hamilton
February 19, 2011 5:24 pm

Thanks for this – it’s fascinating seeing what you’ve taken away and woven together from the talks. It was a great day.

February 20, 2011 7:37 pm

Your colleague’s hand-drawn slides were also fantastic…

February 22, 2011 3:03 pm

Nice summary. The phrase was quoted as being by Edmund Jabès, by the way – though I haven’t been able to verify the source of the quote anywhere.

February 23, 2011 9:56 am

Thanks, Andrew. I can’t find the source either. Will dig a bit harder…

Once upon a time….WK Platform attended the story conference |
February 23, 2011 6:19 pm

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