Multimedia Storytellers: Panel Discussion

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Apr 16, 2014 01:50 PM |
This post brings three storytellers together to find points of intersection between their methods. The format will be that of a panel discussion and it features: Arjun Srivathsa from Pocket Science India, Ameen Haque from the Storywallahs, and Ajay Dasgupta from The Kahani Project. They discuss technology, interpretation and action in storytelling.
Multimedia Storytellers: Panel Discussion

'Something Fishy' by Arjun Srivathsa -storyteller and research scientist- believes you can communicate scientific study through art and humor.http://goo.gl/v5olnC

CHANGE-MAKERS: Arjun Srivathsa, Ameen Haque and Ajay Dasgupta

ORGANIZATIONS:Pocket Science India, The Storywallahs and The Kahani Project

METHOD OF CHANGE: Storytelling

Over the last couple of weeks, I had the privilege of interviewing three storytellers. What struck me the most, besides from their fascinating ideas about storytelling, was how many of their ideas overlapped. As much as I would love to sit all of them in the same room and enjoy the fireworks, there are a number of logistical constraints that shut my storyteller reunion daydreams down; so for this post, I decided to be a self-appointed liaison between you and them. I will mimic this discussion by putting my conversations with them side by side, in the format of a panel discussion. Their interaction will have to happen in the realm of your imagination.

The questionnaire I used for my interviews was open-ended. I was curious to hear what they wanted to share about their work, as opposed to filtering and steering the conversation in a certain direction; so I let them take their own turn. While I clearly inquired about the relationship between storytelling and making change, it was fascinating to see each storyteller reach the question of ‘social impact' through different channels; testimony of the influence of their education and professional backgrounds in their work.

If I were to bring them together, the topic of the discussion would be: 'Technology, Interpretation and Action in Storytelling'. We briefly discussed mediation and semiotics[1] in the Pre-Production section of the Storytelling as Performance post. We mentioned then:

"mediums are combined to enhance the visibility of the message and the power of the experience of stories. [...] Each medium: video, audio, text, music, etc.- becomes “a new literate space” or “symbolic tool” storytellers use to portray narratives about the self, community and society (Hull, 2006)”

These thoughts were triggered by the work of the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who considers our self-identity a result of sign mediation and interpretation. Other themes in his work include: discourse and action, temporality, narrative and identity; also useful and relevant when exploring how storytelling and reality intersect. For example, how does building a narrative develop into a discourse that mirrors our context and existence? How does the medium chosen to carry this narrative define the language system of our discourse? Finally, let’s not forget this discussion is happening amid the digital question: how does the mediation of digital technologies enable or constrain our narratives of change?

Against this background, I would like to propose a discussion around five points of intersection that came up organically* during my conversations with them.

a) The power of storytelling:
What makes it a powerful vehicle of communication? How does this practice break from more traditional strategies of information dissemination?

b) Storytelling as a vehicle to make change:
How does the practice of storytelling intervene in the social imagination of its audience? Is it the experience or the content of stories what drives the message of change forward? Where does change happen: at the value, behavioral, community or macro level?

c) The role of technology in storytelling:
What is the part technology plays in storytelling vis-a-vis traditional storytelling? Is it a static infrastructure or does it shape the force and direction of the story? How does technology influence and impact their work

d) Translating awareness to action through stories:
Can you guarantee the ideas and values imbued by the story will translate into action in the public space?

e) Influence of stories on citizenship and political participation:
Can the power of stories be leveraged to instill a sense of responsibility in the audience?

* With the exception of Arjun Srivathsa, who addressed these points in a conference I attended. He later responded to a questionnaire in which I inquired about the intersections specifically.

Introductions

We first have Arjun Srivathsa. He has a Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation and currently works as a Research Associate for the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS India). In tandem, he started Pocket Science India, an initiative that combines wildlife science with art and cartoons to promote conservation in India and disseminate information from scientific journal articles. He aims to bridge the gap between the work of scientists and people using art and humour.

Arjun: I find the world of science and scientists very cool. Finding new things, discovering and inventing ways to understand the world better is an awesome way of life. I chose a career in science for this reason, second only to my love for nature and wildlife. But the essence of science, according to me, is not just to discover, but also to communicate. Even though wildlife research in India has progressed massively in the past few decades, the only notion people have is that of exaggerated scenes from television documentaries. When I discovered that most of the work by Indian scientists on wildlife and conservation of India is making no difference to people (mostly because they are unaware), I decided to use the easiest way to bridge the gap: through humour and art.

Second speaker is Ameen Haque from The Storywallahs. In what he calls his past life, he worked for 18 years in Advertising and Brand Strategy Consulting. Ameen also has a background in theatre and now works as as storyteller for The Storywallahs.

Finally, we have Ajay Dasgupta, the founder of The Kahani Project, who also has a background in theatre and believes listening to stories is a fundamental right of children. His team works to capture stories in audio format and make them accessible.

 

I will now invite them to share their thoughts on the points described above. Each panelist will respond to the questions using a different medium: Arjun will comment with text and images, Ameen will comment with video and Ajay will comment using audiobytes. The idea is for each storyteller to use the medium and language they use for their own storytelling: cartoons, body language and audio respectively, as we explore how this choice mediates how they conceptualize change. I will act as a moderator and comment on common themes in the light of Paul Ricoeur’s characteristics of narratives.

1. The Power of Storytelling

What makes it a powerful vehicle of communication?

 

“narrative attains full significance when it becomes a condition of  temporal existence” Time and Narrative

The first characteristic of narratives according to Ricoeur is: the ability to bring independent elements and episodes together into a plot within a specific context and time. The relationship between time and narrative is addressed by the philosopher in his work 'Oneself as Another,' in which he frames narratives as the most 'faithful articulations of human time'. This leads to an understanding of time as a framework where we can locate unique events and patterns, trajectories and sequences. Our three storytellers comment on how stories are an effective mean to communicate information, and how this information resonates because it can be located in the frame of our human existence.

Arjun: Storytelling really is the nascence of any communication technique. As kids we were all told stories with bees and birds, which spoke and thought. The moral life lessons and similar “information” were served to us on these fascinating platters.

 Pocket Science 1
Dugongs are closely related to whales and dolphins. They are peaceful mammals that swim around gracefully and feed on sea grass.
They are categorized as “VULNERABLE” because there are not too many of them left in the world.

Find full cartoon here

At some point in life, we all seem to stop appreciating the power of storytelling. Plain reporting of information has been done to death. Even an amazing discovery written as a formal report will fail to excite audience. It is time we all get back to appreciating stories. They sell. Movies generally do better than documentaries don’t they?

Ameen:

 

Ajay:

2. Storytelling as a vehicle to make change

How and where does change happen?

 

“All action is in principle interaction [...] change happens through interaction, as others are also encouraged to change” From Text to Action

The second characteristic of narratives is how the episodes in our narratives involve contingencies that will be shaped and reformulated through the development of the story. The narratives are constructed in such a way that induce us to imagine possible events in the future and how we would act in said circumstances. This characteristic is supported by Ricoeur's understanding of the 'self' as an 'agent', who can act and influence causation by taking initiative or interfering[2] in the story. Even if the listener cannot necessarily influence the outcome of the story (unless it is participatory storytelling), it triggers thoughts about its capability to act and its ability to change future realities, as he imagines himself n the situation of its characters. This out-of-body experience is what turns story into experience.

Our storytellers comment on how stories can influence and activate our agency and enable listeners to act towards creating change.

Arjun: Of course! Like I said, it is easier to influence people when you are not being preachy. Storytelling sidesteps the moral high ground that change makers are often blamed to occupy and takes a pleasantly shrewd path, as silly as it may sound.

Pocket Science 4
PSI2
  #2: Increase in wildlife tourism has been brought about by the increasing population of the ‘Tourist’. This species is easy to recognize (see figure). The species has created an ecosystem of its own. It eats any kind of high or low profile food. Lives in resorts. Seeks charismatic animals like the tiger. Its daily activity involves excessive use of its camera. This species facilitates wildlife tourism  #9: Wildlife tourism is an excellent way to expose people of India and abroad to its rich natural heritage [...] We definitely need to regulate the number of tourists to avoid crowding in the forests, but we also need to educate tourists, especially the first-timers, about wildlife and its conservation. The tourist can be an important tool in conservation – let’s not let it go waste!"

Find full cartoon here.

To the question of where we locate change, it depends on what this change is. Through my work, I often target individuals and smaller communities (say students, villagers etc.). I don't necessarily grab my paintbrush and declare that I will change the world. My idea of change is a tailored, targeted and therefore an efficient influence on individuals.

Ameen:

Ajay:


3. The role of technology in storytelling

How does technology influence and impact your work?

 

Ricoeur’s thoughts on the relationship between text and action, makes us reconsider how we think about ‘text’ and how this reading can be applied to technology. According to him, the distinction between text and action is not at the linguistic, but at the discursive level. This is how he differentiates language from discourse:


Language
Discourse
Structure A system: timeless and static
Located at a given time and moment
Composition A sequence of signs
A sequence of events that describe, claim and represent the world
Meaning Refers to signs
Refers to the world
Communication Provides codes for communication.
Necessary but not sufficient
Communicates

Using these working definitions, we can understand the medium as a language: a system that provides us with signs and codes for communication. A creative use of language and mediums will hence, enable us to create narratives and produce meaning (which will be generated and negotiated by the audience). Technology is in this case our language, and how each storyteller uses it determines new ways to create meaning: experiences, connections and associations with and within their stories. We now ask them if/how the use of this 'language' mediates and impacts their work.

Arjun: Technology is the best facilitator in the realm of my science-art-communication. I depend on it extensively, to first educate myself. Then to create artwork (computer, tablet, smartphone). And then eventually I depend heavily on social media to broadcast my work. I will definitely credit the power of technology for fostering and enabling effective communication.

PSI3

# 11: The story of Ajoba was carried far and wide in newspapers, television news and the internet.  Find full cartoon here.

In my capacity, I feel most confident targeting students and urban youth. But thanks to the power of social media, putting my work out there has grabbed the attention of change-makers who are capable of things that is beyond my scope. This has led to collaborations through which the reach has become wider. Teachers use my art work in their classes, some organisations are using it in forest department buildings to educate visitors, some local groups have translated my work into regional languages.

Ameen:

Ajay:


4. Translating awareness into action through stories

Can you guarantee the ideas and values imbued by the story translate into action in the public space?

 

 “what must be the nature of action...if it is to be read in terms of change in the world?” From Text to Action

So far they have told us about the power and content of stories. However, we have yet to find out what is it in stories that make listeners translate fiction into real life action. Ricoeur's final characteristic of narratives points us in the direction of empathy and interpretation.

Like discourse, action is open to interpretation. He posits that characters of our stories rise to the status of ‘persons’ when we evaluate their actions, including their doings and sufferings. This ethical verdict determines the identity of the character in the eyes of the audience (above any other physical or emotional characteristics) and this is what ultimately adds meaning to the events of the story, as it inspires the audience to emulate or reject this behavior through their actions.

We asked our storytellers their thoughts on how to translate stories' messages into meaningful action, or if it was even possible to guarantee this transition to begin with:

Arjun: I don’t [know]. One never does, I feel. But a lot of good awareness programs have made me change little things in my life. The people or groups who initiated those campaigns don't know of this, do they? This is somewhat similar. I believe that even if ONE person in the thousand who view my work gets influenced into making little changes, then it was worth my time and effort.

Ameen:


Ajay: (Ajay commented on the impact of stories while we were discussing how to gauge the impact of his work. In our first conversation he said: "Change is happening but there are no tests that can measure it and quantify it." and he elaborates on this idea below:)

 

5. Influence of stories on citizenship and political participation

Can the power of stories be leveraged to instill a sense of responsibility in the audience?


"You can only achieve power in common by including the opinions of as many people as possible in the discourse"

 

Finally, as stated in the brief of the project on methods for change, we are also interested in defining how political participation should be manifested in the public space. Ricoeur frames political action as a result of discourse and political deliberation.For a brief discussion of the relationship between storytelling and our political identity visit Part 2 of Storytelling as Performance.)

This last section captures the storytellers' point of view on how stories may affect our sense of citizenship and political responsibility.

Arjun: We are living in a society which is becoming increasingly insensitive and arrogant. There seems to be no time to stop and see the big picture: what are we doing? are our demands and lifestyles sustainable? Is the future generation secure? Impacts of our actions on the natural world.

Pocket Science 2 Pocket Science 3
 #1: Most of us love seafood. And why shouldn't we? It tops the charts as some of the most delicious delicacies in the world! It so happens that we rarely think about what goes on “behind-the-scenes” and take many things for granted. The story behind how food reaches your plate is quite a scary one!  #12: So next time you feel like a getting a seafood dinner, do it with some perspective.
Find full cartoon here
Ameen:

 

 

Ajay:

 

Closing Remarks

I hope you enjoyed reading, watching and listening these three wonderful storytellers share their ideas on technology, interpretation and action. The question that remains unresolved is whether the effect of the story is shaped by the use of technology or not. At the end of the day it is the interpretation of stories -more than what it is said and how it is being said- what will determine the sustainability of these intents for change. The answers of our storytellers reinforce the notion that technology is a system, a language, a medium that transports our messages and intentions, but that inherently lacks the ability to provide guarantees for action and sway users into a lifestyle of responsible citizenship the second they pull out from their cartoon, screen or mp3.

The box below includes a quick run through the main ideas discussed throughout the post:

1. On the power of storytelling:

  • Arjun argues that storytelling is the origin of all communication techniques, and this makes it extremely attractive for the public.
  • Both Ajay and Ameen bring up the ability to influence behavior, shape the minds of people and transmit experiences, values and beliefs.
  • Both also brought up how dominant religions, ideologies, markets governments use storytelling to build movements and sustain their support
  • Finally Ajay comments on the issue of access: stories are powerful yet only a small share of stories are being told  Hence, the need for this method to become more pervasive.

2. Storytelling as a vehicle for change:
Each storyteller locates change in different yet complementary spaces:

  • Arjun believes it must occur at the community level and hence the approach (stories) must be tailored and targeted in order to achieve an effective influence. His approach to change is very contextual.
  • Ameen locates it at the behavioral level; in our ability to make decisions and choices. His approach to change is based on how we use information from stories to interact with our surroundings.
  • Ajay locates it at the value level: He believes stories should influence us to adjust our values and only then, we will shape our behavior accordingly.

3. Role of technology:
We approached technology as a 'text' and as a 'language' that creates new possibilities for meaning and interpretation.

  • For Arjun and Ajay, technology enabled them to connect with other organizations and increased possibilities for partnerships and collaborations. 
  • The three of them believe technology is an accelerator of the journey of stories and that it enables them to reach a larger audience.
  • Ameen argued that each medium requires different fluencies, and that the language of each medium should be adapted for the story. For example, a story will be told in different ways if using body language, video, audio, etc. He uses the example of the Twitter adaption of the Mahabharata.
  • Ajay closes by noting that although technology enables, it cannot replace the storyteller.

4. Translating awareness into action

  • Arjun and Ameen comment on the power of effectively and positively influencing one person. They believe the impact will exponentially spread and grow through that person's network or community.
  • Arjun believes you can guarantee it will turn into action.
  • Ameen believes you need to move them and inspire them through your characters to the point they feel they can be the hero of that story and act accordingly.
  • Ajay takes a more pragmatic approach towards action and shares some of the activities The Kahani Project uses to complement his storytelling sessions, such as: story-thons, story-booths and interactive storytelling, where they engage the audience in the production of their own stories.

5. Impact of storytelling on citizenship and political participation

  • Arun and Ajay believe this will come as a result of self-reflection and an evaluation of our impact in the world.
  • Ameen believes effective stories transmit the 'responsibility of action' through rhetoric. He uses the example of the popularity of India Against Corruption movement.
  • Ajay believes storytelling is a humanizing force that has the power of healing. He recommends institutions should utilize this method to spread confidence and inclusion among society and particularly with excluded groups.

Footnotes

[1] Semiotics is defined as the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. It is the study of making meaning and is essential to understand communication processes. While we will not look at any specific semiotics theory, we will focus on how stories create meaning through different signs and mediums, and how this meaning can be leveraged for making change.

[2] Refer to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page on Paul Ricoeur and the section on ‘Selves and Agents’ to learn more about how action is mediated by causation, interference and intervention. Some interesting thoughts that inspired the above post

“What must be the nature of the world … if human beings are able to introduce changes into it?. Ricoeur adopts the analysis of interference or intervention that G. H. von Wright gives in Explanation and Understanding, and shows that for there to be interference, there must be both: an ongoing anterior established order or course of things and a human doing that somehow intervenes in and disturbs that order. Moreover, interference is always purposeful. Hence an interference is not merely ascribable to an agent. It is also imputable to the agent as the one whose purpose motivates the interference.”

“The second crucial question about action is “What must be the nature of action … if it is to be read in terms of a change in the world?” Ricoeur argues that every action involves initiative, i.e., “an intervention of the agent of action into the course of the world, an intervention that effectively causes changes in the world” (Oneself as Another, 109, translation modified). Initiative requires a bodily agent possessing specific capabilities and vulnerabilities who inhabits some concrete worldly situation.”

Sources:

 

Dauenhauer, Bernard and Pellauer, David, "Paul Ricoeur", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/ricoeur/>.

 

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