Imagine a conference where you can take a respectable train (or a long breakfast), leave your laptop/iPad in your bag, sit with a near-silent appreciative audience, and where none of the presenters read from slides – in fact, every presentation is as engaging as a good short story. Oh, and then head to the pub to discuss before the office workers flood the tables.
The Story is one such event, and in addition to the above I can add that it never ceases to take me out of my normal realm and into areas which both challenge and inspire. The brainchild of Matt Locke (of Storythings, and who describes The Story as ‘just something I wanted to listen to – and it’s amazing so many of you share my delight’), the line-up this year was as eclectic (and largely unknown to me) as ever, and on arrival we all received possibly the best conference programme ever: inscribed on a quality 70% chocolate slab, in appearance order. A sizeable portion of the audience were to be seen nibbling down the block as each new speaker took to the stage. Pure genius.
Matt’s idea, and instruction to speakers, is simply “tell us a story”. And they did. The event raises money for the Ministry of Stories – who opened with a travel writing swapshop, and sold their crafty and disgusting products in the foyer: all proceeds going towards their fabulously creative work with children in Hoxton, London. Matthew Sheret and Simon Thornton then chatted about how music traditional told stories in long player form, and was now finding new long-playing stories in online forms (such as LastFM – where Matt works – playlists). The best quote of the day arrived during their chat, when Matthew mentioned receiving a fax in the 1980s, and Simon (aged Young) interjected “I’ve never seen a fax”. Jeremy Deller was next – an artist who makes provocative installations and live action events – and told us the tale of his re-enactment of the The Battle Of Orgreave, scene of a major clash during the Miner’s Strike and re-envisaged here with sealed-knot conscripts.
Liz Henry took us on a crazy journey through the seedy world of fake bloggers – uncovering fake lesbians and subterfuge as she went. Anthony Owen, Head of Magic at the BBC (great title) opened with a fabulous 5-minute audience participation trick, and then went on to describe magic as narrative: explaining that the difference between good and great magic is the use of stories to draw in the audience. Matthew Herbert followed from Sheret and Thornton in describing his use of music to tell stories, and particularly his latest album which uses the sounds from a pig’s life from birth to consumption – the clips he played echoing around the Conway Hall raucously. One of the best twenty minutes of the day followed lunch, when Tom Watson and Emily Bell took to the stage to talk candidly about the hacking scandal from politician and reporter perspectives, drawing together a number of fabulous anecdotes into a gripping tale: rapturous applause followed utter silence from the audience as they got up to leave.
Scott Burnham told the tale of his fascinating project in Amsterdam, where hundreds of volunteers spent hours creating typographical art on a wide paved area using 1 Euro coins and it was then left for the general public to rearrange as they passed (the coins had one blue side, and several clever designs and words appeared throughout the first day in blue). The climax of the story came with the sudden disappearance, overnight, of all of the coins: which Scott later traced back to the Amsterdam police force, who had ‘secured the artwork’ for him following the ‘theft of several individual coins’; he still carries three of the coins he found on a harbour wall the morning after. Richard Ayres, helping with technical aspects during the day, took an impromptu slot to describe his journey into the BFI‘s vaults, showing some incredible film memorabilia which we were sworn not to repeat (although suffice to say there was some very interesting Star Wars and Film Noir material…). The BFI are looking for media partnerships or similar interesting ideas to release these into the wider world: contact Richard.Ayres at bfi.org.uk if you are interested.
Ellie Harrison provided another major highlight, describing her life to date as an ‘artist, activist and administrator’ and recounting some quite hilarious (and obsessive) projects such as vending machines which only dispense goods when the BBC front page mentions the word ‘recession’, or her political statements about privatisation (where a circle of massage chairs represent each of the ‘lost’ public services); Ellie also proved to be a consummate storyteller. A game was next, The End - a game about death for young people commissioned by Channel 4 education. Tom Chatfield provided a psychology background to the game, with Phil Stuart leading the game development, and the two described the process and the resulting game in fascinating detail (I was most impressed with their extensive involvement of school children in the design of the game, and their use of board-game mechanics to run the battles within the game). Danny O’Brien finished the day with tales of hackers, billionaire nerds and buddhist monks – a fascinating end to a thoroughly engaging day.
Hats off to Matt (and to Meg Pickard for keeping the stories going between the speakers): I saved my chocolate programme until now, but am looking forward to nibbling my way down it as I think back on some of the incredible stories and ideas from the day once again.