“Our real stories are too dangerous to tell”

Once more to The Story at the Conway Hall, where facts and artistry have an uneasy relationship.

  • Matthew Sheret‘s god-like view of Last FM users’ scrobbles calls into question the hours spent by artists, producers, and record companies in sequencing the songs on an album. “Before we had data…” explains away Simon Thornton, recalling past triumphs of artistic freedom over commercial received wisdom.
  • Matthew Herbert wants to cut out the intermediary step of interpretation by making music from found, solicited and hard-sought-out sounds: “Music has always been about something, now it can be something.”
  • In spite of the police’s best efforts to protect his work from the public, Scott Burnham uncovers “the stories people make with their hands in the city.”
  • And Karen Lubbock’s Karen Magazine  strips away the artifice of the glossy mag, to find universal beauty in the fabric of everyday life. “Something quite provincial is more global,” she says.

But the plural of datum is not story – too much information can dull the soul.

  • “More spreadsheets than friends,” Ellie Harrison was an early bird in the belljar of self-quantification: “I felt trapped. I was spending hours each week employed as administrator of my own life.”

By spinning narratives out of facts, storytellers do more than just reflect reality, they change it.

  • Tom Chatfield and Phil Stuart enable gameplayers to make their own sense of death. The End, abstracts the dictats of great thinkers into a “philosophy mechanic” explored by choosing doors in the game-space (83% believe there’s a cause worth dying for.) But once through a door, revealingly, “you could then be led on.”

And exposing  game-changing truths can be uncomfortable.

  • For how long could Tom “What Would Lester Freamon Do?” Watson have continued “shouting into a vacuum” when the Murdoch-fearing mainstream media failed to give oxygen to a story he understood to be explosive? As Emily Bell noted, even when five out 10 top stories on the Guardian website were about phone hacking, “we were constantly being told that this wasn’t a story.” Only by stepping outside the system, with the alternative air-supply of the Twittersphere, were they able to see what was hidden in plain sight.
  • How, in the uncertain moment of revelation, does Liz Henry deal with the guilt of denying agency to a Lesbian blogger from Syria – even as “the Amina entity” is unravelling into a bunch of fictitious sock-puppets? The confusion sewn in the West is nothing compared to the very real fallout for genuine activists in the Middle East. “This is how marginalised people lose their histories, they’re drowned out by the fake stories. Our real stories are too dangerous to tell so the false stories, so much more palatable, trump them.”
  • And where does that leave Jeremy Deller‘s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave? Is his reconstruction one of those fake stories, or a truer representation than contemporaneous media reports? Can he “jog the memory of the public” to recast the story in a new light?

Last year’s the Story was mostly about fragments – Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, Martin Parr’s snapshots of northern life and Pepys’ Diary sliced and diced by Phil Gyford into 140 characters – until all that remained was a feeling, Adam Curtis’ “emotional realism”. Stories were left hanging by the most tenuous of threads.

For 2012, the narrative was back in town, but not always cast as the hero. The potential for easy stories to lie and mislead was ever-present.

  • Danny O’Brien in semi-riposte/semi-synthesis of Curtis (“There’s something like the internet in every generation.”) tells how billionaire libertarians convince themselves that their quest for sea-steading “slave societies” puts them on the side of the good guys, using the “initial conditions” of the internet, “rough consensus and working code” to remake the world more to their liking. Maybe they could learn some things about society – and sailing – from the anarchists of the Occupy movement? Certainly at times, it can be hard to tell them apart.

Thanks once again to Matt Locke for curating such an amazing bunch of speakers. Here’s to Story 2013.

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