22 Storytellers : Forward/Story 2015 Conference : Nosara, Costa Rica

Hank Blumenthal
6 min readJun 22, 2015

The Forward/Story 2015 Conference (http://www.forwardslashstory.com,) the second annual advanced storytelling residential lab and conference created and produced by Christy Dena and Lance Weiler, united a unique crew of storytelling pioneers for a series of talks, workshops, exercises, as well as bonding and brainstorming experiences. Christy Dena is known for her transmedia projects and academic writings on transmedia production and aesthetics. Lance Weiler is an innovator in digital distribution and transmedia storytelling who is Director of Experiential Learning and Applied Creativity at Columbia University. They put together an astounding crew of investigators in a paradisiacal location with a provocative itinerary.

Please check them out: http://www.forwardslashstory.com/storytellers/2015-participants/

The cast of this epic was a group of scholars, scholar/artists, and artist/business people; they were all storytellers and pushing the envelope of media forms. Beside the esteemed Christy and Lance, there were foremost transmedia scholars such as Marc Ruppel, a Senior Program Officer at NEH, and Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture. Innovators stirring the pot were Caitlin Burns, of McCarren Park movie and transmedia renown, Jamie King of Steal this Movie fame (we had some disagreements about copyright,) and Ken Eklund, the alumnus from Forward/Slash 2014, creator of the groundbreaking Alternate Reality Game, World Without Oil. I want to cover every paradigm-challenging individual and their work, but, lacking space, please check them out below. They came from Scotland, Wales, England, Sweden, France, Canada, Australia, and the US and brimmed with creative energy. A few drawings, courtesy of Fan Sissoko, illustrate engaged individuals and engaging concepts.

This crucible was created by a cult-like scenario. They removed us from our common surroundings, including work, consistent wi-fi, and media, to an exotic place that seemed to brim with possibilities — Nosara, Costa Rica. It is one of the most magical spots on earth, with a beach that is supernatural. It is empty, undeveloped, and eco-friendly. The food tastes like food, instead of the industrial grocery version. We enjoyed the delightful amenities of the Sunset Shack Hotel, where much of the conceptual struggles were waged at the bar/restaurant. I have to acknowledge John Johnson’s fine hospitality for the conference location and support. His long-term incubation of new story models through many groups (Eyebeam, Buzzfeed, etc.) is a bright star in the hard journey to create “indie” and experimental media. It proved a spectacular place to exchange ideas and make new friends, with monkeys occasionally howling for attention or quick breaks in the infinity pool overlooking the amazing beach.

Lastly, Christy and Lance, designed an itinerary that included talks from all the participants spread over the two days. There were design challenges, idea workshops, and exercises that encouraged participants to find deep and profound links to their artistic or scholarly practice. We also explored the obstacles or discoveries we encountered. Here are the takeaways.

1. Augmented Reality (AR)/Mixed Reality storytelling emerged as a practical medium of storytelling expression being used by a diverse group. Most examples involved a scavenger hunt scenario, with devices or rituals that revealed historical or supernatural elements in the background. Despite the prevalence of these models, there has been little commercial demand for these in advertising or as a paid storytelling medium that I have seen. However after observing the implementations for museums and clients, I can see how the robustness of new AR platforms is yielding a viable medium. This is especially true when considering the affordances of the new features and sensors in the next generation of AR gear (Hololens, Magic Leap.)

2. The Alternate Reality Game is also being codified as a story medium with applications in education, entertainment, and branding — or all three at once. Multiple participants had overlapping projects and examples.

3. Nomedia — media without media or conventions or grammar. This is a term I coined to describe the diversity of media forms that are being hybridized and distributed. Older forms are fading but also persistent. This is leading to a medium-less media landscape where there is no consistent grammar or semiotic framing. Many media invoke the language of movies or television, with an editing together of moving picture shots — however the grammar of that expression changes in AR, alternate reality games, dramatic games, and other hybrid forms and aggregations. The academic frame of looking at a single medium may be failing as taxonomy, though as I note here, some new models such as AR and ARG stories are emerging.

4. Stories are being reorganized in ways that are more than non-linear. They are hypertextual, participatory, experiential, and multi-model. What is story in this context, and how does it model a narrative across media and time was a central discussion. Disbursing chunks of story and allowing their discovery in ways outlined above pointed to new implementations, methods, and emotional revelations.

5. Multi-engagement. This could also be properly said to be multi-modal. For me the eight forms of intelligence that Howard Gardner notes as musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic form the way that we engage with stories now across media and in experiences. Almost everyone had a similar model that invoked the many ways that stories engage.

6. The No-Plan was an idea that evolved out of a conversation with Simon Staffans and Julia Pontecorvo. The No-Plan, in my mind, was a zen-plan with no expectations that was open to any possibility. This contrasts against the plans that constrain our goals and actions as we add new planning arcs to our lives or stories. The No-Plan was the punctuation, the parsing, of a world full of plans. I keep returning to the freedom of the No-Plan as an idea with great appeal and scary possibilities.

7. A surprising, but agreeable takeaway, was the centrality of storytelling for most of the participants. This was a deep engagement in the meaning and power of stories and how they animate these various media forms and further experimentation. Multiple talks focused on this storytelling power. Storytellers wrestled with catharsis and emotions. The emotional direction and resonance of a story in these investigations was a primary topic. There was very little talk (if any) of creating a storyworld and a great deal of finding the heart of a property, the core meaning, the central emotions, empathy, and how that translated into these new media expressions.

8. The final revelation was a realization that, as a group, we were looking beyond what had been done with interactive games, alternate reality, augmented reality, and a wealth of experimentation in intermediate and transmedial forms. We were looking towards what was next. I realized that I wasn’t in a conversation trying to bring people up to a remedial knowledge of the field, or arguing my best conclusions. We were all peering beyond the horizon and trying to think and work together to figure out what comes next. Models are being tested; production processes are evolving, and we were all looking to collaborate to figure out how to take the next steps as storytellers and scholars. I had a glimmer of a new grammar of media for stories. There is much of traditional storytelling and dramaturgy in it, but the storyteller’s palette has increased exponentially.

This is a brief overview of an inspiring and productive conference. I came away with fresh ideas and new perspectives, but also with a new community of colleagues and friends to share the exploration of storytelling models. I’ve noticed, as a pioneer, you get a lot of arrows in the ass, so having companions on the journey increases success. We now have an active Slack group for collaboration, with plans for a documentary to be shot over the course of the year. I am waiting for the Forward/Story 2015 manifesto.

Please check out the excellent posts by my partners in crime:

Fan Sissoco: https://whatfanlearns.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/forward-story-2015/

Lee-Sean Huang: https://medium.com/foossa-files/forward-story-b4b729f70c94

Simon Staffans: http://simonstaffans.com/2015/06/03/forwardslashstory-the-stone-that-sends-the-ripples/, http://simonstaffans.com/2015/05/22/the-difficult-client-you/, http://simonstaffans.com/2015/06/02/the-no-plan-plan/

Steve La Rue: http://surfinghollywood.com/2015/05/22/surf-report-costa-rica-draws-storytellers-from-around-the-world-for-forwardstory-writers-lab/

Mark Harris: http://murmurco.tumblr.com/post/121928288696/5-takeaways-from-forward-story-2015