Story Gardens: 3-D, immersive, interactive, social and offline

During our MA studies, it was suggested that digital storytelling is non-linear whereas text-based storytelling is linear, and that engaging with online stories is immersive, active, interactive and social, as opposed to offline reading which is less immersive, relatively passive and often solitary.

Those of us who since childhood have known the pleasures of immersing ourselves in a book, imagining our own versions of scenes described, placing ourselves in characters’ shoes, and engaging our friends in repeated acting out of the stories in our own gardens or living rooms (accepting with good or bad humour the inevitable story variations that arise when actors, props and locations do not exquisitely reflect the text), initially found it hard to accept these distinctions.

In one online discussion with classmates, I said,

I was quite startled to realise that … new media art might be defined by non-linear narratives. Is it always a requirement that the reader not be offered, or be able to choose not to follow, a linear storyline? … when I think about the interactive possibilities of the new media, I can see ways to engage the reader and enable them to contribute, but still have them follow a narrative chosen by the writer.

I went on to say,

I think of the non-linear approach as more ‘poetic’, in the sense of the genre of poetry. The best way to engage with this kind of work is in a meditative frame of mind, where one takes the time to dwell with sounds, images and associations and follow these imaginatively. A poem may, of course, have a strong narrative structure, but much of the pleasure if offers is found ‘along the way’, before one reaches the conclusion or the resolution of any ‘plot’. Even in a linear story, attempts to evoke the emotions and perceptions of characters or of the reader may create ‘poetic’ moments during the story. If one maximizes these moments and reduces the linking narrative, even to the point where it is implied rather than described, one may produce a relatively ‘non-linear’ story (although the idea of story inevitably contains linearity).  I suppose that this is my perception of how Inanimate Alice works. There is a linear chronology, but this is suggested rather than detailed, and my experience as the reader is of poetic moments at intervals along that chronology.

This was my limited view of new media’s potential at the time and, of course, it turned out that there was some sense in what our teachers were saying and we learned to identify and value the different kind of immersion, as well as the relative autonomy, creative freedom and social discourse offered to the reader by many online stories.

However, I still felt that these comparisons, necessary though they might be, could devalue the power of text-based stories. I longed to hold on to them while still embracing video games, MMOGs, cross-media narratives and all the other online possibilities… I did not want the new literacies to supplant the old.  Thus, I was delighted when a recent visit to a Story Garden (“Gan Sipur”) in Israel suggested a way of creating and maintaining a transliterate approach to the enjoyment of stories.

Holon, a large city south of and adjacent to Tel Aviv, has 31 of these Story Gardens. Along with the Children’s Museum, the Mediatheque Cultural Center and various other youth-friendly initiatives, they contribute to Holon’s growing reputation as a “children’s city”. Hana Herzman, managing director of Holon Municipality, and Moti Sasson, Mayor of Holon, are credited with originating and driving the development of the Story Gardens project. They explain the concept further in this video:

Story Gardens of Holon (view on YouTube)

In other words, Story Gardens are landscaped sculpture installations where the sculptures are characters, objects or abstract representations of thoughts and emotions from well-loved children’s stories.

Each garden (there may be several within a park) is a visually identifiable, cohesive space for one particular story, but offering unlimited points of access and egress.  A path suggests the author’s original linear progress through the story, but nothing prevents the experiencer from being attracted to or seeking out alternative routes through the story.

Thematic and aesthetic cohesion for a particular story is established by having one sculptor per story, so only one artist works with a particular writer or text to interpret that story, but these unique story gardens are then united by tasteful, spacious landscaping in and between each “storyverse”, as though an editor had placed them in an anthology. See some more examples in Yair Karelic’s photos here:

Holon’s Story Gardens (1 of 2)

Holon’s Story Gardens (2 of 2)

Besides the simple pleasures of experiencing the gardens themselves, from an analytical point of view, the collaborative creation and the confluence of literacies here is wonderful.  In creating a story garden, an author’s text is interpreted by a selection committee, a sculptor, and architects, environmental planners and engineers (often in live discussion with the author), and then re-interpreted with great satisfaction by teachers, parents, grandparents and, most importantly, by the children at whom the entire exercise is aimed.  And taking transliteracy a step further… some of the stories have even morphed their way into the world of philately through photos of the sculptures!

And the text is never far from the story experience, despite its outdoor, 3-D, immersive, flexible and very social nature: apparently the most popular books in Holon are those featured in the Story Gardens. They are borrowed from the Mediatheque library and are taken to the gardens to be read aloud or home to be enjoyed again, by parents, teachers and children.

In a recent wide-ranging post, Reading in the Digital Age or Reading How We’ve Always Read, Kassia Krozser of Booksquare muses most engagingly on the technological developments required to facilitate social reading in the online environment, but what struck me is her assertion that reading has been a social activity for much longer than it has been a solitary one. She reminds us that

Social reading is normal reading. …  Even after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the possession of books was outside the reach of most people. …. The tradition of people reading to each other remains alive and well. …  It wasn’t until mass market books became available that reading, as we know it, was identified as a (almost-solely) solitary activity (overall literacy rates had to catch up as well, but that’s another issue).

I sometimes think of reading as “story absorption” to remind myself that stories were not always bound in books, but I am also glad that, at this point in the evolution of storytelling, when “wreading” happens in a Story Garden (because analysis, comment, reinterpretation and embellishment are inevitable parts of creation and of play), texts may still be part of the discussion.

The Shallows and how I stopped reading it in favour of gazing out of the window

Shallowscoverthumb2Last week I was very pleased to get hold of a copy of Nick Carr's new book The Shallows just in time for a long train journey. Great. I'd have time and space to really absorb it without distraction. The reality, however, was rather different, because for the first time I became acutely aware that it was actually the book itself that was distracting me from the real world. This is how it happened.

The flyleaf of The Shallows, subtitled 'How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember' states that the book is a 'revelatory reminder of how far the internet has become enmeshed in our daily existence and is affecting the way we think'. Carr spends the first hundred pages or so outlining the history of writing and reading along with a summary of recent neuroscience research.

It was an enjoyable survey but as I read I was also aware that something was really nagging at me. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon as my train wound its way south through the English Midlands, but I wasn't seeing any of it because, as they say, I had my nose in a book. Green meadows and golden fields passed along my peripheral vision in a moving ribbon of countryside but I didn't really absorb the view because I was reading a book about how distracting computers can be. In one sense you might say that I was proving Carr's point that the wired condition makes it difficult to focus any more, but in another sense I ask myself whether that really matters.  Early in the book, Carr quotes a brief aside by Duke University Professor Kate Hayles about the reading habits of her students, but I don't think he refers to her work on hyper and deep attention in which she notes that "it is not far-fetched to imagine that the trend toward hyper attention represents the brain’s cultural co-evolution in coordination with high-speed, information-intensive, and rapidly changing environments that make flexible alternation of tasks, quick processing of multiple information streams, and low thresholds for boredom more adaptive than a preference for concentrating on a single object to the exclusion of external stimuli."

This was my problem. I wanted to read The Shallows. I was enjoying reading it. But I was acutely aware that I was missing what was going on outside that narrow range of vision. Eventually I realised that I wished I'd bought it as an audiobook so I could listen whilst doing other things, rather than be confined to a reading posture for hours on end.

As we passed through Basingstoke, I finally closed the volume I'd been leaning over for three hours, took out my iPhone and earplugs, and tuned to my collection of podcasts. While I listened to an episode of The Forum, I checked my email now and then. Beyond the train window, rabbits came out to feed. People walked their dogs through meadows. Roads began to fill up with rush-hour cars, and early evening lights shone in the distance. With all this going on simultaneously, I finally felt like I was back in the world again.

Postcript: I'm looking forward to finishing The Shallows very soon but admit I am somewhat bemused by the fact that it was this, of all books, which for the first time jolted in me a real sense of dissatisfaction with print.

Vacancy: Impact Research Fellow, De Montfort University

Impact Research Fellow, De Montfort University
Part time 0.5 FTE, Fixed term for 6 months

Dmu_logo_small This post is a unique opportunity to analyse the impact of a group of key social media projects in relation to business innovation and the growing field of transliteracy research. It is ideally suited to a scholar wishing to examine the importance of impact in relation to a substantial example of social media practice. The material to be researched includes archives of the NLab business and social network, including CreativeCoffee Club, and of Amplified Leicester, a city-wide experiment in social media. The Transliteracy Research Group originated in the Institute of Creative Technologies at DMU and is led by Professor Sue Thomas and Kate Pullinger. The post is managed by Professor Thomas and situated within the Faculty of Humanities. You will also work closely with the Institute of Creative Technologies.

You should already hold a PhD in a related topic and have previous experience of working on research projects including gathering data via interviews and surveys. You should be able to communicate complex information, orally, in writing and electronically, and be able to communicate material of a specialist or highly technical nature. It is essential that you are a regular and experienced user of social media and have practical skills in social media applications in either business or academic contexts

Closing date 11 October 2010. The post begins on 10 January 2011. More Information

Transliteracy: A New Link

Recently, while researching other online new media courses and developing the syllabus for the Jan. 2011 online MA in New Media Narratives course, I was introduced to the Creative Research Centre (CRC) at Montclair State University. The director, Neil Baldwin shared some background on the centre with me and it's great to *meet* other academics interested in transdisciplinary/transliterate creative practise. Today, the Transliteracy Research Group has been added to the CRC's ever-evolving bibliography of links and connections.

Have a look at the CRC's Danceaturgy and Nell Painter's Artist Statement (she's the virtual artist in residence) that highlights issues of transdisciplinarity and digital literacy.

If you have any links  on transdisciplinary, transliteracy, new media and/or creative practise you'd like to share with me, please e-mail me: jess AT

Note: Image is by Nell Painter and is from the CRC's homepage.

Literacies of Handclapping

I heard this fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 this week. It's on Listen Again for just a few days so I'm pasting all the info here for future reference. Definitely worth catching whilst it's available if you can because it outlines a whole set of of very ancient literacies which are part of the transliterate universe.

Put Your Hands Together

B00sq1vv_303_170 In a self-consciously clap-happy exploration of one of the most delightful and satisfying forms of human action and expression, Nick Baker investigates the meanings and motivations, the sounds and symbolism, the elation and frustration of ritually striking one hand with another.
The clapping rhythms of football, flamenco, the nursery and the Pentecostal church are all biologically linked yet subtly different. In this anatomy of a basic human ritual, Nick has collected claps as far apart as Fiji – where a clapping ritual accompanies a narcotic-taking ceremony – and China, where young women on busy high streets clap to attract attention to what's on offer in the stores. Choreographer Luke Creswell, an expert clapper, collects clap-routines in bars all over the world.
What's linked in all cases, according to Professor Colwyn Trevarthen, is humanity's attunement to one of its many internal biological clocks – the one that gives us walking, chewing and nodding our head. He invites listeners to join in with a simple experiment to demonstrate the rhythm of life.
Babies clap early & show awareness of hands in the womb. The clap is not the basis of language development, it is language development. It is display, performance, shared meaning & shared time. Gospel singer Ruby Turner provides musical commentary on how the hand clap moves from babies, through Sunday School, the playground and the church towards soul and R and B.
Do our biological predecessors clap? Perhaps we've been exposed to too many tea commercials. Or maybe chimpanzees have been too exposed to us, primatologist Alison Fletcher explains.

Producer: Tamsin Hughes
A Testbed production for BBC Radio 4.
Thu 17 Jun 2010
BBC Radio 4

Lunch at the Internet Archive

Internet Archive, 300 Funston, San FranciscoIf you find yourself in San Francisco on a Friday, you might want to consider making the trip to 300 Funston Avenue to have lunch with some quite remarkable people.  The Internet Archive was founded by Brewster Kahle in 1996 and has been crawling the web ever since.

I can search for the trAce Online Writing Centre, founded in 1995, and find copies of the site archived several times a year for ten years. I'd never really imagInternet Archive Friday lunchined, though, that the Internet Archive had a physical existence, so it was quite surreal to find myself inside a large re-purposed church on a residential street near the Golden Gate Park having lunch with 30 or so of the 300-strong IA team. Brewster Kahle himself was there along with special guest Ted Nelson, who is donating his personal archive. As I understand it, anyone is welcome to the lunch. The price you pay is to stand up and introduce yourself as everyone goes around the table and updates the group on that week's archive work. 

The archive is not just webpages. After lunch a few of us went around the corner to see a dozen or so people diligently scanning, page by page, hundreds of books donated to the archive. I filmed one of the workers, Rebecca, for a while as she described the process – the image is rather unclear at the start but gets better towards the end.

What does all this mean for transliteracy? I guess it's about the literacy of memory. The question of how we archive digital work and preserve it for future generations to access is fraught with problems as technology evolves and, ironically, digitising books won't be the answer unless the digitised work itself can still be read – but I'm sure Brewster Kahle is onto that.

I strongly recommend regular visits to the archive online, and in San Francisco too if you can make it. The whole venture is inspiring in its ambition and reach.

A few more pics here.

Electronic Literature Directory launches


The Electronic Literature Directory is a resource for readers and writers of born-digital literature. Created by the Electronic Literature Organization, it provides an extensive database listing electronic works, their authors, and their publishers. The descriptive entries are drafted by a community of e-lit authors who also tag each work and identify the techniques used in its creation. Discussions of entries are ongoing and offer a networked, peer-to-peer model for literary review.

The new version of the Directory promises to be a great resource of e-literature, and already contains a substantial amount of work, but it's just the beginning, there is much more to add! Creating, reading and critiquing electronic literature is a transliterate practice – let's contribute! Anyone with an account can submit entries to the Directory (but authors may not write about their own works) and entries must be about e-literature (defined below) although e-lit antecedents, such as Raymond Queneau's 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, are included.

Electronic Literature refers to works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.

See also the lively debate here: Electronic Literature Directory Gets a Redesign, in response to the question posed, "What do you think about electronic literature? Has it lived up to the hype?"