So what is “the real world we THINK we inhabit”? What is reality?
To determine that, we might want to look at how the human mind arrives at a sense of understanding the world. Once again, it all goes back to Aristotle. The system of thought expounded by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. is the system of thought we are still using today: it is the order of human mental processing we are familiar with. Says Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics: “In the evolution of the human race and language there was a natural order of evaluation established; namely, the life facts came first and labels (words) next in importance. Today, from childhood up, we inculcate words and language first, and the facts they represent come next in value.” (Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 1933. Fifth edition. New York: Institute of General Semantics, 1994. p. xlvii.)
The nature of language (an abstract symbol system intended to pass information from one mind to another,) invites us to group and divide objects and phenomena that can’t necessarily be separated in reality. Pay attention and you’ll quickly notice how anxious people are to give everything in the human experience a name or a category. As Alan Watts writes in his popular 1957 book The Way of Zen. “We do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication.” (Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. 1957)
But what does that mean for our perception of reality? Aristotle’s system of thought (so our system of thought) is based on the effort to be “objective,” it is two-valued (either-or, dualistic, subject-predicate, etc.) and linear. “Perception is selection,” writes Daniel Goleman (Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, 1985), referring to the model set forth by Freud in his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which may still be our best understanding of the processes of the mind. The basic flow of the model is that a sensory stimulus occurs, then passes through memory sub-levels to the “unconscious” (followed by a censor), the “preconscious” (followed by more censoring), and finally conscious thought, which elicits a response. We say information has been “repressed” if it doesn’t make it to the conscious level.
So, is each of us, as Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson would say, trapped in the reality-tunnel (assumption-consumption) his or her brain has manufactured? Where we do not ‘see’ it or ‘sense’ it as a model our brain has created, but as the objective reality, something we automatically, unconsciously, mechanically ‘see’ and ‘sense’ out there, apart from us?
Inspired by George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, social psychologist Anthony G. Greenwald (The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History, 1980) writes: “The past is remembered as if it were a drama in which self was the leading player. In part, this observation refers to the autobiographical or episodic character of much of memory…” In Orwell’s story there is a concept called “doublethink” and it involves tricking oneself into thinking a conscious choice was actually an unconscious one. Might it all be a bit more complex than Freud’s model of repression, in which the censoring occurs prior to reaching the conscious level? If yes, there is still hope. Writes Goleman: “My aim is to ponder our collective predicament: if we so easily lull ourselves into subtle sleep, how can we awaken? The first step in that, it seems to me, is to notice how we’re all asleep.”
Says Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” (1984, 1949) In the novel this refers to the Ingsoc government, whose paradoxically named “Ministry of Truth” constantly re-writes history according to the current needs of the totalitarian leadership. In the book, as in real life, the details of the past have a determining effect on what can happen in the future. Does that mean that the self, or ego, controls the past from within the ever-changing present, and, therefore, the self controls what can be predicted or planned for in future? If yes, it is an intriguing thought. Now what does this tell us in relation to the objectivity of reality or to the content of truth in cinema?
The psychology of the group, said Freud, involves ‘the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction.’ That translates to the prepotency of shared schemas over personal ones, concludes Goleman, taking into consideration the group studies of Trotter and LeBon. So what if cinema creates the most potent shared schemas, which we have come to consider our reality? If we take into consideration that cinema is based on conflict and has almost never been independent from commercial interests, it is a daunting thought.
In that context, again: To the good liberal humanists of the West, cinema is a symptom of history, an archive that tells us something about our times. But what if cinema is not the symptom but the cause? What if cinema co-creates our reality? Quoting from Kaufman’s Adaptation: “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end”, one might be intrigued to think whether there is indeed a reality out there which has been created by our very own movie culture, especially the wide spread one, that of Hollywood movies. How many of us have learned what love is or should be through movies? How many of us have learned what success is or should be?
And then, there was non-linear.
Non-linear storytelling was not invented by movies. Its predecessors go way back in literature. In the beginning it looked like a trend: towards fiendishly complex plots that demand intense audience focus and analysis just to figure out what is happening on the screen; and mind-benders - films designed specifically to disorient you, to mess with your head, some that challenge the mind by creating a thick network of intersecting plot lines, some that withhold crucial information from the audience or that invent new temporal schemes to invert traditional relationships of cause and effect, some that deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction – indeed through use of all the classic techniques of the old cinematic avant-garde. (Steven Johnson, Everything bad is good for you)
Cinematic complexity also, or perhaps even more so, informed TV series – possibly, among other reasons, because there are only so many threads and subtleties you can introduce into a two hour film.
And then came Web 2.0, the second generation of web services - the ones that didn’t just deliver information or goods or entertainment but invited people to participate. The sharing of stories and characters in trans-media or interactive storytelling, the first-person involvement of online gaming, eventually blurred the line even more, not just between story and play, but also between storyteller and audience, illusion and reality, fact and fiction. (Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion) And characters belonging to apparently separate story lines were randomly or not so randomly linked.
It might be interesting to consider Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome – an a-centered structure without a hierarchical organization in which any point can be arbitrarily connected to any other (Deleuze and Guattari 2004) – as the structure that best reflects multi-protagonist, multi-perspective, non-linear storytelling. The two theorists regard the rhizome as the only alternative to traditional tree models and the structures of power and dominance systems that they inevitably bring about. So do the new cinematic storytelling forms also hold the potential to overcome the hierarchical organization reflected in our classic storytelling’s privileging of one character and his/her point of view (and subjective reality) over the rest?
Multi-perspectival, non-linear storytelling is a participatory experience. In telling the story in non-linear fragments and leaving it to the audience to piece them together – or even if the writer has pieced them together allowing for different interpretations as is mostly the case – what is created is essentially a kind of participatory fiction. Charlie Kaufman once described his writing philosophy in the following way: “I guess my mindset about movies is that I feel like film is a dead medium. With theater, you have accidents that can happen, performances that can change. But film is a recording. So what I try to do is infuse my screenplays with enough information that upon repeated viewings you can have a different experience. Rather than the movie going linearly to one thing, and at the end telling you what the movie’s about – I try to create a conversation with the audience. I guess that’s what I try to do – have a conversation with each individual member of the audience”.
Might we be experiencing a shift in cinematic storytelling? And assuming that we accept that cinema co-creates our sense of reality, might we be also experiencing a shift in our perception of reality?
André Bazin is perhaps the one writer who seems to have written about cinema today, while talking about cinema so many years ago. Interestingly enough, his moment lasted only fifteen years and ended with the events of 1968: cinema’s relationship to ideology and power prevailed – so also Eisenstein’s rational theoretical approach. The “new” approach has come to be known as “semiotic” a term which summarizes the structuralist, ideological, psychoanalytic and gender theory it encompasses. Bazin explains how through the contents of the image and the resources of montage, cinema has at its disposal a whole arsenal of means whereby to impose its interpretation of an event on the spectator. Neorealism is as far as possible from that danger, he writes. Neorealism never makes reality the servant of some pre-existing point of view. It requires the actor or the non-actor ‘to be’ rather than ‘to act’ or ‘pretend to be’. But above all, it requires the narrative to respect the actual qualities and duration of the event in preference to the artificial, abstract or dramatic duration favored in classic montage. Simply put: Bazin puts his trust in the representation of uninterpreted reality and is open to the accidents of reality. But is that even possible? Is there an uninterpreted reality?
Perhaps it is time to remember what another leading exponent of the realist view of cinema, Siegfried Kracauer, wrote so long ago: Film, he said, is the only art form which can really hold up the mirror to reality/to nature. It reproduces the raw material of the physical world within the work of art. It is the clear obligation and the special privilege of film to record and reveal, AND THEREFORE REDEEM, physical reality. For Kracauer film art redeems this world from its dormant state, its state of virtual nonexistence by endeavoring to experience it through the camera. (Kracauer famously argued that German cinema helped prepare the way for Hitler’s rise by diverting the audience from a serious appraisal of social realities.)
Kracauer argued in the same way as Walter Benjamin did (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935): Film is commercial, it is a mass product, and as such it has changed the nature (and the independence) of art. Creating a bridge to that argument today, it is intriguing to ask ourselves whether this effect can now become undone: In a time when films stop being necessarily of a high budget, when anyone can make a film - perhaps not a 3D perfect sound perfect image film, but a film which can be watched by a mass audience – cinema might again become an art form which allows for the creative independence it has more or less always missed, and that since its beginnings.
Another interesting consideration in relation to how we are used to tell stories, is that we are used to being told stories. That, again, has been challenged a few times in film history: For instance, by the shot-in-depth, introduced by Orson Welles and William Wyler, where dramatic effects for which we had formerly relied on montage are created by the movement of the actors within a fixed framework. It is Bazin who first recognized that depth of focus gives an experience to the spectator, which brings him closer to his experience of reality. He also noticed something else which is most interesting in light of today’s evolution of the medium: that through the shot-in-depth, the spectator is more active and more participatory. Whereas with analytical montage he follows the director’s guide who chooses what he will see and what not, here he is called to exercise a minimum of personal choice. It is from his attention and his will that the meaning of the image in part derives. (Bazin, The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, 1950-55)
Might the long shot and the shot-in-depth, but also multithreading in TV and nonlinear cinematic storytelling be precursors of a development towards participatory storytelling? It is interesting that Bazin (godfather of the Nouvelle Vague) would find this a positive characteristic, because in a way it goes against the very notion of auteurism: that there is only one (and sacred) story to be told, that of the auteur. Freedom for the spectator to create the meaning, essentially means also less respect for the single auteur’s “vision”. Bazin writes the same about montage: montage rules out ambiguity of expression, so it allows for only one reality: the one proposed by the auteur (intriguingly enough, he calls this a metaphysical proposition).
Another interesting observation that we might want to make before we embark further on this train of thought, is that continuity cinema and storytelling as we know it, are based on conflict. Both montage and screenwriting rules, the dramatic principle in itself are all based on conflict (and, subsequently, resolution of conflict). Eisenstein famously argues for conflict as the essential basic principle of the existence of every work of art. Through cinema, and not only, we are trained to think in the mode of duality and conflict - and to tell our stories in that way. Even the supposed reality of the photographic image: isn’t it itself a conventionalized compositional logic, imposed by rules of perspective and lenses grounded to stress conflict? Based on that observation, shouldn’t we be asking whether cinema re-produces reality or the world of the dominant ideology?
But what might we mean by the dominant ideology? Consider that: We believe in rationality and evidence, and we will not accept a counter-argument if it is not based on proof (Nietzsche describes rational science as Western civilization’s “last great religion”). Storytelling as we know it, also finds itself in that realm: the causality principle, continuity (the continuity system of matching, centering, shot-reverse shot, the 180-degree rule: where each shot and sequence is made to seem inevitable and plots that turn on oppositions are ultimately resolved etc.), linearity and psychological thinking all belong to the dominant way of thinking.
It is fair to say that there have always been other voices: Paul Feyerabend, the Austrian-born philosopher of science, with his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules, is just one of them (major works include Against Method of 1975, Science in a Free Society of 1978 and Farewell to Reason of 1987). He urges us to gamble more recklessly: by ignoring disciplinary boundaries, by listening to outsiders or even dilettantes, by suspecting experts, and by adapting for research the methods of the 20th century’s avant-garde arts and nontraditional sciences. “We need a dream-world”, says Feyerabend, “in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit.”
So what is “the real world we THINK we inhabit”? What is reality?
To determine that, we might want to look at how the human mind arrives at a sense of understanding the world.
I should start this text by explaining why I use the term ‘cinema’, when I actually mean the audiovisual medium as a whole - TV, WebTV, transmedia, any screen, really. It is true that medium distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred with emerging technologies, and thus we cannot regard any “medium” as an absolute fixed category (any more than we can do that with genre). If we consider cinema as something which is connected to the darkened theater of the classic period, if we indulge in nostalgia and think cinema is film: two uninterrupted hours in the dark, film festivals, theatrical distribution – then, yes, this is the wrong term to use. But if we see cinema as storytelling which is (primarily) using image and sound and which is as much about exploration as it is about spectacle; a medium which can penetrate deep into reality by destroying familiar ways of seeing - by challenging the very frameworks of reality - then we realize that there is no better term, none more inclusive, and definitely no term which raises the stakes as this one does. And we need to raise the stakes. Eisenstein’s vision of cinema as an “excellent instrument of perception” (Eistenstein 1977a: 69-70) reminds us how, early on, the function of cinema was debatable, and not taken for granted. Perhaps, once again, we need to stop taking it for granted and open the field as generously as we can: Cinema is everywhere. Long live cinema.
So indulge me while I will be using the term cinema in this context, as a poetic term, as something that is everywhere, as something that includes everything that is sound and image, as something that is growing together with technology. The next step should surely be to ask ourselves: ‘What IS cinema?’ Is it amusement? Is it a pastime? Is it a representation of reality, even a direct recording of nature (and if yes, to what effect?)? Is it artistic expression of a single mind? Is it a collaborative art form? Is it an educational tool, even one which is quintessential to the emotional education and through it to the cultivation of civilized society, as were the ancient Greek dramas for their times? Is it a tool of investigation?
For Lumiere, the documentarist, it was research. For Melies, the fiction maker, it was spectacle. (Godard famously said “I have always wanted to do research in the form of a spectacle”.) For Griffith it was art, and so it was for Eisenstein, leading to a century of discourse about the true nature of cinema.
It is perhaps impossible to comprehend how decisive Griffith’s influence was. By more or less discovering montage: the fluid integration of the camera’s total range of shots - from extreme close-up to distant panorama -, by showing the way to the most coherent narrative sequence, the most systematic meaning, and the most effective rhythmic pattern, he started on a cinematic language, which has stayed with us till today. It has lead to ‘continuity cinema’ and to our sense of filmic or other storytelling “as it should be”.
There is a word, which is being used a lot lately - the word ‘storytelling’: it is an interesting word because of its double nature, involving both a story to be told and the telling of a story. But are these two aspects the only ones? The work of the literary critic Gerard Genette (Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method, 1980) is interesting in that aspect, as he distinguishes three different meanings for the term narrative. Taking this as starting point we can talk about three (not two) different levels in storytelling: the story, so the content, the storytelling, so the content as communicated by the discourse (the succession of events, real or fictitious) and the act of narrating in itself - the storytelling perspective (who narrates, why and how).
There, in that area, we are experiencing, especially in recent years, quite a few deviations from what David Bordwell (Narration in the Fiction Film, 1985) calls “the canonical story format”: the story pattern most easily recognized and comprehended within our culture. And – one would have to add – the one, which has perhaps contributed the most in creating our expectations, and through them our thoughts/our thinking process, and through them our reality.
Hang on! Art creates reality? Isn’t it reality that creates art? The main tradition of Western aesthetics, deriving from Aristotle’s Poetics, adopts the view that art “imitates” nature. In fact one of the biggest disputes between the teacher and the pupil (Plato and Aristotle) and perhaps the main reason why Aristotle conceived of his Poetics, had to do with that view. The main difference between the pupil and the teacher is that the first believes that art is a reproduction of the sense world; and that the second insists that it is a deceitful image. To Aristotle, the artist copies reality directly, not indirectly, as Plato maintains. The distance of art from truth - that is, the distance from the considerable goal of Platonic philosophy - is allegedly so vast for Plato that the work of art immediately becomes suspicious. Poetry is unnecessary, he says, since from an ontological point of view it is the copy of a copy. So: untrue. (Or we might say: unreal.)
Still, art always pursued the ideal of representing reality as close as possible. Painting pursued this ideal, literature did it, and even the theatre - if one thinks of Ibsen and Chekhov - held the mirror up to reality. All this was eclipsed by the invention of photography. Then what was more real than a direct recording of reality? With the moving pictures art created the perfect illusion of reality. Or did it?
The problematic begun by Plato and Aristotle constitutes the ideological argument right up until today: Can cinema represent reality, or does it serve to seduce and consequently become an end in itself? Or, going further: Does cinema create reality, rather than the other way around? “In my classroom, I tried to impress upon the students that reality is a consensus” (from Palahniuk’s Rant, 2007:53)
Mimesis, either as representation or as a creative reproduction of reality, has employed the most diverse schools of cinema narration many times over. It almost looks as though various historical cinema movements, such as Neorealismo, Nouvelle Vague, the Free Cinema, Cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema, the Junger Deutscher Film (Young German Cinema) and the relative contemporary Danish Dogma movement harken back to Platonic and later Brechtian argumentation, in that they accuse classical cinema of being seductive and declare their programmatic desire to represent objective reality directly.
At the same time we have an anti-realist tradition. That is not and cannot be the goal of art, say the proponents of that tradition, because what would then be the point? The value of art is in the interpretation or idealization of the world, or the creation of a world, which is there in addition to the real world. Eisenstein thought that a medium’s aesthetic value is a direct function of its ability to transform the reality serving as its raw material (and, obviously, the means of such transformation was montage). Assuming the role T.S. Eliot was also assuming in his own field - that of the artist-critic whose writings create the taste by which his own aesthetic practice is judged - he soon found the French Impressionists and Surrealists against him. They, again, represented the position that (as Bazin, the French critic and founder of Cahiers du Cinéma, who in fact made the most persuasive argument in the late 1940s, put it: film’s true destiny is the objective representation of reality): “an image of the world is formed automatically (for the first time in human history) without the creative invention of man”.
So – here we are: In a new medium or a medium, which includes the old media and still having the same unresolved conversation. Only we have changed. Today, we are all aware of the mechanics of storytelling. Cinema has made it its duty to reveal this, and we are perfectly aware of the fallacy of the reality represented in classic linear films. That, and in our immense contemporary desire for truth, is perhaps why that conversation receives a new twist today – and why we are having it, again.
We love our stories. We tell stories to define who we are as individuals. We define ourselves, first to ourselves and then to others. We put a label on this constructed self. We become a brand.
We create personas in Facebook, and we sell ourselves. We may present ourselves in what we consider to be the best light. Look at how many cool people I know. Look at how much I travel and all the places I have been. Look at how much fun I am having. Others of us may present ourselves through the victim persona. Look at how bad the Other is behaving. Look at all of the injustices in the world. Look at me speaking for those who have no voice. Look at how noble I am. A few of us create sarcastic personas, readily available to make a snide or witty remark at the like of a submit button. All three are covers. They serve as protective shields. And through them, we tell a story of who we think we are. We believe these stories. We become what we say we are.
Or do we?
I was having a conversation with a fourteen-year-old boy the other day. He is part of a global gamers community, and he told me that he and his fellow gamers do not tell each other where they live, who their parents are, which school they are attending, not even their ages. This caused a strange resistance in me. I asked him how he and the other gamers got to know each other. The moment I asked the question, I realized how stupid my question was.
Do I know someone else by her age, where she lives, what she is doing for a living, how she was raised, where she went to high school or college, if she is married or divorced, has children, or what she had for dinner? (So many labels, so many brands.) Of course I know the answer to these questions, but only through my preconceptions, my memories, my experiences that I apply to every one of her answers. Therefore, I limit her. I brand her.
Perhaps it is time we stop sharing our labels with each other and to stop telling others who we think we are - because we are doing it the wrong way. Perhaps it is time we focus on the essence of who we are.
Do we know how to do that? Would we know how to do that? Maybe not. But that should not stop us from doing it. We will find it soon enough, and this discovery might change our stories…it even might change the world.
p.s. By the way, the gamer did answer my question. Of course they get to know each other, he said. But it happens gradually. It happens over time. Lajos Egri would have been happy to hear that. For him exposition was part of the whole piece and not a detachable component placed at the beginning that plays no further role afterwards. The introduction of a character, he said, must unfold continuously right up to the conclusion of the drama. Here comes a generation which has better narrative instincts than the generations before. Does anyone still doubt that life is storytelling?
If you are interested in testing and pushing the boundaries of storytelling and in finding ways to apply storytelling to serve the world, check out, follow us, share and participate in our project 42 Seconds of Happiness
All we need is your commitment to tweet, post and blog about the process and the project for the full duration of the workshop, from whichever angle is fascinating to you. Participation is free of charge.
Seating is limited, so please send in your interest, questions and registration asap to
The goal at Writers Improv Studio is to transfer the creative work into “the zone,” into a place of creative flow where the actors and the writer are lead instead of actively leading. At DIY Days NYC in March 2012 our group made an experiment. Feeling that Transmedia is lacking in terms of its emotional core we asked ourselves, whether there is a way to have a shared emotional experience by collective storytelling, and if so, whether we can also create it in a collective way? The initial experiment inspired us to do more work in this direction, which eventually lead to our project 42 Seconds of Happiness, where you can also follow the process of the development of A Prototype of Emotional Immersion. If you want to learn more about the “roving gathering for those who create” including Christina Kallas’ Game of Aporia at Wicked Solutions for a Wicked Problem, download the book at LearnDoShare, an amazing new site about collaboration and social innovation. Ele jansen writes about the experiment at DIY Days:
I COULD PROBABLY tell one hundred different stories about the Writer’s Improv at DIY Days. That’s about as many participants Christina Kallas welcomed to her workshop. The writer-producer was well prepared for her experiment. Two days she had spent during [WS WP] with a group of 25, developing future scenarios based on reasoning and storytelling. Various wishes for a better future surfaced, were debated and let go again. One prevailing theme was immortality. A basic storyline was developed by a group of 4. Then Christina grouped with her actors to flesh out a narrative frame that included multiple connected protagonists, different storylines and alternative worlds and conflicts. Her workshop at DIY Days was meant to open the storyworld to the attendees.
Christina normally organizes her workshops around writers, who come to improvise their script with several (fabulous) actors. It’s a refined method to unlock the core of a story. The process is usually filtered through the emotional energy of a single person, which is supported and measured by the collective emotional energy. The goal is to transfer the creative work into “the zone,” into a place of creative flow where the actors and the writer are lead instead of actively leading.
Now imagine this: You enter a room with 100 other conference guests. You are presented with a theme, in this case: immortality. You fill the gaps, you improvise, you add your own story to the universe. Multiple authors, multiple storylines, the creation process is a collective performance. Everybody gets to play their own hero’s journey within the same story. What does this challenge mean to the classical nature of story? If everybody has a say in where the story goes, we end up with a twofold challenge to auteur theory. Christina wanted to know: 1) can we deduct elements of an emotionally cohesive story from a group of storytellers in order to replace the single author by a group? and 2) Is there a way to have a shared emotional experience by collective storytelling, and if so, can we also create it in a collective way?
I saw Christina after her workshop. She looked everybody’s own hero’s journey overwhelmed and exhausted, but seemed to be in a focused state of heightened awareness. The workshop was incredibly popular with the participants and was described as a unique experience. Christina sought to find a common denominator in the collective to lead all individual stories that had evolved into a cohesive narrative. Alas, within the admittedly short timeframe there was no way to achieve emotional focus. And in her own words, “We did not enter the zone. We used our minds more than our emotions, and remained in the world of cause and effect. That is an exhausting world, while the zone is effortless.”
The story was meant to end in a short performance at the end of the day, in front of a larger audience. Christina decided to explain the experiment instead of performing a ‘scattered’ story. Her conclusion at that point was that although story can be constructed logically by a group of storytellers, the individual cannot be replaced as a storyteller, that stories require channeling through a single author to create an immersive emotional experience for the audience.
Afterward we discussed the experiment at length. We all found incredible insights from what Christina had done. It sparked our imagination as to how the audience can be integrated further and immersed emotionally. Brian Clark, Founder and CEO GMD Studios, had attended the workshop and thought it was an inspiring experience. It ended, he said, at the point where you take a documentary to the editing room. Yes! How can that be translated to a physical collaborative event? You make the audience your editors! Lance thought it could work out really well, and Christina is intrigued by the prospect of a next step in the experiment. Just let all participants present a fragment of the story they feel connected to. The audience takes separate items, shuffles, drops or builds upon them. Some emotional journeys are played out, some get connected, some grow stronger, and others recede. Each decision changes the world a little bit.
How exciting to go a step further beyond the trodden path and develop a system allowing the audience even greater integration into the process.
So how does the language of our dreams look like? We have established that it is non-linear and that it is participatory. In fact these two things come from the same source. I will now add a third one: it is emotional. In dreams we leave our thoughts behind.
“Emotion is that movement which sets the soul in motion and spontaneously spreads from soul to soul,” says Michel Foucault in what is probably the most beautiful definition of something we are still trying to understand. Perhaps it would help if we were to try to understand what it is not. It is not thought.
Thought is the very essence of security, says Jiddu Krishnamurti in his conversation with quantum physicist David Bohm about The Ending of Time, “and that is what the most bourgeois mind wants, security, security at every level! A radical change within myself as a human being cannot be brought about through thought, because thought can only function in relation to conflict. Thought can only breed conflict.”
As per Bohm (“Thought as a System”): “What is the source of all this trouble? I’m saying that the source is basically in thought. Many people would think that such a statement is crazy, because thought is the one thing we have with which to solve our problems. That’s part of our tradition. Yet it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems is the source of our problems. (…) The general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it’s not doing anything - that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the info. But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you.” Bohm introduced the term “sustained incoherence” - and it is an interesting term to use in storytelling, where we traditionally apply the principle of cause and effect to create coherence through thought.
But what about coherence through emotion? If we try to record the dominant emotion we wake up with, we will realize that in our dreams, emotions have a special clarity.
So they do in storytelling. (Film) narrative structures, which break our perception of the linear direction of time, create a world of quantum “strangeness“ where story time, story space, and the viewer’s consciousness (mirroring the writer’s consciousness) are intimately interrelated and inseparable - and there exists a higher dimension, in which everything is interconnected. This I call emotional structure, as it goes beyond the classic one-dimensional cognitive perception. It approaches structure from the perspective of a more comprehensive perception than rational thinking and going beyond Aristotle’s causality (or what may have been misinterpreted as such or as too important in what is written in his Poetics).
In non-linear storytelling, because there is not one character to follow, no main plot and no cause and effect, we as spectators are put at the center of the action. We stop being observers and become participants. Whatever is happening, it is happening to us. We make an emotional journey and that emotional journey, which is mirroring the emotional journey of the storyteller, is the only thing, which makes this a unity, a story. In fact the story becomes an experience - an immersive experience.
There is an idea that is connected with this and why I think that the term immersive storytelling – to which nonlinearity, participation and emotion are intrinsic elements - is a happy one. There is the idea of going deeper.
Perhaps our brains are gradually being wired towards going deeper. This, to say the least, is a compelling thought – and I am perfectly aware of the paradox in my concluding sentence.
Classic narratives are emotionally engaging but they involve us as observers. Whatever’s going on is not happening to us, it is happening to a character on the page or on the screen. As a result, we may feel superior to the character(s). But how can truth be conveyed if the corresponding parts are not equal on an emotional level, or is the human experience not to be conveyed in a true manner and if yes, how important are emotions in that equation?
The laconic sentence, “δι΄ελέουκαιφόβουπεραίνουσατηντωντοιούτωνπαθημάτωνκάθαρσιν” (through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions), has been interpreted manifold. The word pair “eleos and phobos” are reproduced in different languages and different times in different ways. For instance, in the German language they were reproduced since Lessing as “compassion and fear”. Manfred Fuhrmann discovered that this translation was in error and that the word “eleos” is best translated as “misery” or “emotion” while the word “phobos” is more appropriately translated as “shuddering” or “horror.”
As a result the prevalent interpretation says that the audience sensed negative emotions, became afraid that the painful event could threaten them and had pity for the hero since he or she suffered unjustly. The audience, however, knew that what it experienced is not happening in reality. This safety zone put it in the position of being able to think about the human condition, to accept that pain and misfortune are inseparable components of human life and to reject every feeling of arrogance (Jakob, Ζητήματα Λογοτεχνικής Θεωρίας, p. 34 ff.). Brecht still opposed and mistrusted “this curious Aristotelian empathy.” The goal of the Brechtian Theater was for the audience to develop a greater emotional distance to the occurrences.
But as words change meaning, so do works of art. The impact of a work of art is dependant on who we are and what is our mindset when we perceive it. It would be unwise to assume that we can perceive Greek tragedies in the same way as an audience of their time. The most beautiful description of what they may have meant to that audience goes back to Nietzsche. He saw the tragedies of antiquity as a way to strengthening. According to him, the ancient Greeks, the artists, and the audience proved they were able to face up to the worst conditions of human existence, to accept them and by doing so change them. Friedrich Nietzsche called this satisfaction “tragic joy” (Nietzsche, Geburt der Tragödie, chapters 16, 17, 21, 22), with which the post-creative audience became the “audience-artist”. The dramatic work permitted them to feel a joy that transcended the merely sensuous. It provided them with the joy of meaning, that is, the joy of finding out that everything in life makes sense, a joy that can sweep aside every pain from the outset.
In suffering we are all rendered potentially asocial: isolated and alone. It is pity that brings us back into the community of others. And not the kind of pity where what we feel for others is ultimately self-pity. Greek tragedy is born when men and women begin to redefine nobility. It is not only about the shared suffering. It is the shared suffering. Tragedy is a celebration of the willingness and ability of the people to share each other’s pain. Pain sharing is transformed into an act of civic virtue. Such virtue is not tantamount to democracy - it is its very ground.
The moderns seem to have found another ground, that of shared interest. So how predictable was the current dead end when everybody was focused on his or her own interests and a culture of love and pity was absent? What if this were the foundation of civilization: not justice (so difficult to achieve as there are many perspectives and many truths), but the ability to stay connected to others, to share emotions with others and so ease their isolation, their alienation from humanity?
Something is happening. Something which for the last few decades is wiring us towards another mindset, and it is happening on all levels. The vital act is the act of participation. How relevant that participation is also the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics. It strikes down the term ‘observer’ of classical theory, the man who stands safely behind the thick glass wall and watches what goes on without taking part (Misner, Thorne & Wheeler, Gravitation).
In our world, in which so many human hopes have proven to be blind, something is happening. We are changing the way we are telling our stories and by doing that we are changing ourselves. Whatever’s going on, is now happening to us.
Classic narrative solves a problem that exists in the present by uncovering its roots in the past. It is the principle of causal coherence, in this case the search for what can or is required to happen before an event, which can lead us from the ending to the beginning of a story. This is based on the Aristotelian “το εικός ή αναγκαίον,” that is, “the probable or the necessary,” a construct duality that is of great importance to the Aristotelian theory. The events must happen in such a way “so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action” (Aristoteles, Poetics 7/1451a), and “the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole” (Ibid., 8/1451a).
In classic, linear narrative the attention of the audience is drawn to the past and its consequences instead of the present. “King Oedipus” (Oedipus Tyrannos), Sophocle’s adaptation (436-433 B.C) of the Oedipus myth, the only version of it that has survived, is the original model of the closed form based on the causality principle - and the first whodunit ever written. If we began with its ending, logical consistency would lead us systematically back to its beginning.
Causal thinking - the kind that seeks reasons, consequences and that uses linear time, is incidentally the mindset we use most.
Sometimes we use another mindset: Dreams are emotionally charged, hardly literary, almost never linear & most definitely no friends to causal narrative. As is their nature, our usually non-linear dreams are in the rule illogical and extremely complex.
And then something happened. Something, which for the last few decades, is wiring us towards another mindset: that of our dreams.
The following is the current program for DIY DAYS NYC 2012. We’re excited to team with the New School, the Parsons School of Design, the Makerbot Community, FreedomLab, Story Pirates, the Writers Improv Studio, Reboot Stories and the Buckminster Fuller Institute to bring you an action packed day of talks, workshops, networking and experiences.
Important to note that we’re expanding the popular “What are you working on and what do you need” open sessions. Attendees of DIY DAYS are handed a mic and given 60 seconds to share what they are passionate about. There will be 35 to 40 slots available on a first come first serve basis. “What are you working on and what do you need” will be held in front of the full DIY DAYS audience in Tischman Auditorium.
Saturday March 3rd @ the New School in NYC
The New School 66 W 12th St. NY, NY 10011
DESIGN QUESTION OF THE DAY
“How do we make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone?” – Buckminster Fuller
*The schedule is subject to change
9:30 to 10:15 REGISTRATION
10:15 to 10:30 A VOICE FROM THE FUTURE Elementary school students open the event with a performance. This sets the stage for the day.
10:30 to 10:35 WELCOME & AND HOW THE DAY WILL WORK
10:35 to 10:45 WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AND WHAT DO YOU NEED? ***Open Mic – each person is given 60 seconds. Slots are available on a first come first serve basis. SIGN UP when you arrive.
10:50 to 11:10 DESIGN AS A HUMAN FUNCTION Speaker – Michael Ben-Eli
11:10 to 11:20 WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AND WHAT DO YOU NEED? ***Open Mic – each person is given 60 seconds. Slots are available on a first come first serve basis. SIGN UP when you arrive.
11:20 to 11:40 PLAY – UNLOCKING THE IMAGINATION OF MANY Speaker – Nicholas Fortugno
11:40 to 11:50 WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AND WHAT DO YOU NEED? ***Open Mic – each person is given 60 seconds. Slots are available on a first come first serve basis. SIGN UP when you arrive.
11:50 to 12:10 EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING – role of tech, creativity & collaboration within education Speaker – tbd
12:10 to 12:15 WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AND WHAT DO YOU NEED? ***Open Mic – each person is given 60 seconds. Slots are available on a first come first serve basis. SIGN UP when you arrive.
12:15 to 12:35 LISTEN AS YOUR STORY TALKS TO THE INTERNET Speaker – Lance Weiler
12:35 to 1:30 BREAK FOR LUNCH
OPEN DESIGN EXPERIENCES LET YOUR “MAP TO THE FUTURE” BE YOUR GUIDE – attendees will be given a special map that turns the day into an experience design exercise.
1:30 to 4:45 WOLLMAN HALL (also known as EXPERIENCE HALL)
- OCCUPY – conflict resolution role playing and mobilization game design Guide – Errol King & members of OWS
- WORLD GAME simulations and collaborative design – a look at the world of Buckminster Fuller Guide – Kurt Przybilla
- ROBOT HEART STORIES – help a robot make her way back home a Reboot Stories participatory project
- POCKET STORIES – storytelling through common objects Guide – Sophie Nichols
- PROTOTYPING THE FUTURE with Makerbots and the Parsons School of Design
- WISH BOOTH & TIME MACHINES – participatory storytelling a Story Pirates & Reboot Stories participatory project
- A CONSTELLATION OF STORIES – a kinect hack turns your motions into stars Guide – Elena Parker
ROOM 410 1:30 to 4:45 OPEN DESIGN TRACK - Improving Patient Care – how storytelling and gameplay can improve health care Guide – Noah Pivnick
ROOM 406 1:30 to 4:45 OPEN DESIGN TRACK - Building a sustainable creative industry This room is open to whoever wishes to participate in a think tank on creative sustainability
TISCHMAN AUDITORIUM 1:30 to 4:00 WRITERS IMPROV – FINDING AN EMOPTIONAL CORE IN STORYTELLING A collaborative exercise in the creation of an open storyworld influenced by attendees of DIY DAYS. Lead by Writers Improv founder Christina Kallas
WORKSHOP TRACK A – NARRATIVE DESIGN ROOM 407
1:30 to 2:15 PRIMER ON BUILDING STORIES THAT LIVE BEYOND ONE SCREEN Speaker – members of StoryCode
2:20 to 2:50 WHAT THE HECK IS A CREATIVE TECHNOLOGIST Speaker – Mark Harris & company
2:55 to 3:40 THE TRANSMEDIA BALANCING ACT Speaker – Andrea Phillips
3:45 to 4:15 MEASURING SUCCESS – new methods for funding, engaging and creating Speakers – Sparrow Hall, Ele Jensan, Nick Braccia
4:15 to 5:00 BUILDING & NURTURING A VALUABLE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR AUDIENCE Speaker – Ryan Koo
WORKSHOP TRACK B – STORYTELLING AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE ROOM 404
2:15 to 3:00 MOBILIZING THROUGH STORYTELLING Speaker – Lina Srivastava
3:05 to 3:50 EXTEND YOUR PROJECT’S REACH: DEVELOP EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS Speaker – Felicia Pride
4:00 to 4:45 WORLDS OF LEARNING: TRANSMEDIA FOR CHILDREN & EDUCATION Speakers – Laura Fleming, Lucas J.W. Johnson, Karen Wehner
THE BUILDING OF A TIME CAPSULE TISCHMAN AUDITORIUM
5:00 to 5:30 SPECIAL SURPRISE GUESTS An exciting close to the day – you won’t believe who you’ll get to meet.
AFTER PARTY / SOCIAL MIXER 5:45 to 7:30 DRINKS AND FOOD @ BAR13
Writers Improv – finding deeper emotional connections to story
Christina Kallas writer, producer, educator and founder of the Writers Improv Studio. Christina and her team will be bringing a special collaborative storytelling experience to DIY DAYS where participants will be able to enter a process that strives to find deeper emotional connections within a stories.
5 Questions with Christina Kallas
What will you be doing at DIY DAYS?
I’ll be running the Writers Improv Experience – a group of actors and writers from the Writers Improv Studio work throughout the day taking in variables from attendees and improvising on stories and characters that will be part of the open storyworld that will fuel an end of the day performance. This collaboration will bring us a co-created storyworld that is lead by the imagination of the attendees and their wishes for the future.
What’s your background?
Storyteller and changelover. Being at home in many countries and many languages, I recently moved from Europe to New York, where I feel that change has its home at the present moment.
What excites you about the writing process?
I love the moment when you seem to have touched onto something which is true and simple and you are led more than leading. It is an almost feverish condition, you feel the energy, as if you touched a string which is responding by sympathetic resonance to a note from another source. This is the aim of the Writers Improv method – to get writers and actors to that state, where they are able to feel the flow and rhythm of the story.This demands that as a storyteller you have to let go of control. Actors and writers take on the story of the original storyteller and tell on as if it were their own. There are certain things which I have found to be of incredible importance to be able to go deeper in such collaborative story evolution, and they all have to do with I-motion (I am joking, it is emotion, of course.) But letting go of control is the first step. I like to use the metaphor of Eskimos when they make ice sculptures: they firmly believe that there is only one form in the ice. Many artists from antiquity felt the same. They freed the form imprisoned in the marble, a pre-existing form that was there long before they were. We cannot be held responsible for something that existed before us. The marble and the form we discover in it, the words and the meanings we discover when combining them, are not there to express our egos. We are the medium through which something that pre-exists becomes known. So we can all work at the same piece of marble or ice, the form will be the same, as it pre-exists.
What’s your wish for the future?
I wish that we can evolve in consciousness and become able to perceive with a bigger part of our brains. I cannot imagine a more exhilarating experience.
If you could share a book, film, album, and experience with the future what would each be?
If what you mean is which book, film, album I cherish most to bring into the future, then this is a difficult question. Perhaps Radiohead, perhaps Mulholland Drive, perhaps The Catcher in the Rye. And what about an experience? Looking into my son’s eyes for the first time, seeing the Berlin wall fall, group meditating in Apollo’s temple in Delphi, using the human microphone… There’s so much I’d like to share with the future!
WHAT CHRISTINA WILL BE DOING AT DIY DAYS
The Writers Improv be a collaboration with Writers Improv Studio, which focuses on the art of improvisation as a method for writing. Improvisation, as used here, incorporates scene work with actors through a concrete method to explore the emotional arcs and deeper truth of stories. Writers Improv is like walking backwards. You know who you are and what has happened, but you cannot see where you are going. You are walking into the future – but the future is included in the past. The focus is on emerging and collaborative storytelling. The goal is a co-created storyworld, lead by the imagination of the attendees and their wishes for the future.
Christina Kallas has written and/or produced a number of movies, TV series and TV movies. She has taught in film programs at university level for more than 15 years and currently teaches at Columbia and The New School. Christina earned an M.A. in music and film studies and a PhD in film and media studies at the FU Berlin, and has written five books, among themCreative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure. As a storyteller and scholar she loves alternative narrative structures (non-linear, multi-protagonist, multi-perspective, dissolution of time). In 2011 she founded the Writers Improv Studio in New York. She is currently working on a transmedia project, The Kairos Project.
I was a member of the presiding board of the German Writers’ Guild for many years and one of my fields of action was international collaboration. As a Greek living in Germany and making films all over the world, being engaged in talks with writers from other countries felt like home. When I was asked to also be the FSE delegate for my guild, I said yes. A month later I visited my first FSE General Assembly.
Why do you believe that the work of the FSE is so important for writers?
Because we live in an international world. And it is becoming more and more international. If we think that national legislation is going to protect our rights, then we should think again. Nowadays I even doubt whether lobbying for good European legislation is even enough, which is why I am so passionately engaged in establishing close and continuous collaboration on a global level.
How similar are the concerns of professional writers across Europe?
Very. There are countries which have less problems on one level but more on another. Our biggest common problem is the buy-out contract which seems to have established itself permanently in most of the countries, as well as acceptable minimum conditions for fees and credits. There are other issues: the way state aid is being distributed and accounted for, the transparency and monopoly of collecting societies, the ignorance of festivals, critics and academics in relation to our profession. And now we have the internet - a new ecosystem which is still in evolution and which may soon be the most important market for us writers.
Could you outline the main work of the FSE?
Among other things: we engage in common campaigns, information exchange and we formulate goals for Europe’s writers and pursue them. We lobby at European Union level, we support national guilds where needed or when a problem arises, and we organise conferences to discuss our issues on an international level and decide on common actions.
You’ve written and produced films across Europe for a number of years - how have things changed for writers in that time?
Apart from the general industry changes affecting writers, I think that things have become much better. Our role is acknowledged, we are being heard and we are much more confident than when I started working or even when I started fighting for writers’ concerns ten years ago. And I was pretty aware of the work of my predecessors when I stepped in the ring - there was a desert once where we are now starting to see the first roses. If a previous board member of the WGGB or any other writers’ guild is reading this, I want to say, thank you. Volunteering so selflessly your creative time and energy was important and is held dear.
What direction are things moving in for writers, do you think?
This is a very interesting and challenging question. I think that media professions are changing. A writer will not and cannot be just a writer anymore. This is already so in television and a very clear development in the internet - there we have storytellers, filmmakers, creators, writer/producers. N oone is just a writer. This may be temporary but my gut feeling is that it will stay.
Do you think British writers tend to be less aware of opportunities in other countries than they should be?
I think that British and American writers have the most opportunities because of the English language, which is the lingua franca of our times. But I also think that being connected more and more because of the internet raises the opportunities for all writers. The world which is emerging may be ultimately a better world for writers. By the way, the FSE has just created a page (www.facebook.com/screenwriterseurope) and an open group (http://www.facebook.com/groups/268558639854974) with the exact intention of enabling better communication between all our writer members. I am confident that such communication may bear fruits in terms of working together, jumpstarting co-productions, creating transnational writers rooms… So anyone who is interested should join.
The FSE and the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds organised the first World Conference of Screenwriters (WCOS) in 2009; was it a success and will it happen again?
It was a huge success. The FSE put itself and its member guilds on the map in 2006 with the First European Conference and the Manifesto of the European Screenwriters. The First World Conference was only possible because of the attention that created. And it was amazing because for the first time we had writers from all over the world in one room - can you imagine the energy and the power? The Second World Conference is already in the works and this time it will involve writers from countries which were not present in the first one - like India - and it will have a much stronger participation from the Latin American guilds. The plan is for the WCOS II to take place in Madrid in November 2012. And of course the focus will be on the internet.
The European Screenwriters Manifesto was launched in 2006 - is it still important now?
Very much so. We have made progress on some of the points raised through the Manifesto, but there is still a lot to be done. The Manifesto was conceived as a very ambitious plan - and ambition means work.
What plans does the FSE have for the future?
We will make waves with WCOS II. Stay tuned.
Professor Christina Kallas, author of five books, among them the acclaimed “Creative Screenwriting. Understanding Emotional Structure”, and president of the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe, has contributed to film and screenwriting theory with her emotional structure theory and the improv for writers method, and is credited with writing and/or producing a.o. four feature films, two TV series and a made-for-TV movie.
She has served the industry as the chair of the commission for the financing of script development and a member of the commission for the financing of film production at the German Federal Film Board in Berlin and as the artistic director of the Balkan Fund.
She has taught at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, the International Film School in Cologne, the Scuola Holden per le Techniche Narrative in Torino, the Film Studies Department of the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki and at the NYU. She is currently teaching at the Columbia University Film Program. She is the founder of the Writers Improv Studio in New York.
Interview by Tom Green for UK Writer, The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Magazine