I have been thinking a great deal these days about storytelling — both traditional settings of performer and audience, and new experimental forms of contemporary interactive media. We once sat, eyes rapt, listening to a performer, her recitation punctuated by the nonverbal text of her body, her facial expressions, and her hands moving rapidly through a vocabulary of signifying gestures. An ephemeral form of interactive theater, the story lasted only as long as the performance, each story recitation unique to the moment of its telling. Thus, in addition to oral recitation, storytellers have relied on the visual arts as well to produce a more durable method of sharing stories: the spectacle of a prehistoric hunt scratched in ochre and red lines across a rock face at Chauvet-Pont-Arc; a momentous battle stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry by women, sitting in their sewing rooms, imagining the clash of weapons; the surreal bird–headed men and bat–winged women etched by Max Ernst in his 1939 illustrated tale of exorcism, Un Semaine de Boite (A Week of Kindness). Even today, writing stories, we may consider the text itself at times a form of visual art. Words appear mechanical in a typeset manuscript, dramatic in the flowing calligraphy of a scroll, lassoed in iconic speech bubbles of a graphic novel or passionately scribbled in private notebooks.
Traditional societies have also used encoded methods as mnemonic devices to recall a variety of stories from myths, historical events, and family histories. The Khipu, an Inkan knotted story string, used methodically placed knots tied into different colored strings to record mathematical accounts, offical edicts, and aristocratic lineages. Among the Ewe of Ghana, small objects such a feather or a stone were strung on a cord — each object symbolic of a proverb. The Aroko epistles of the Yoruba in Nigeria consist of cowrie shells strung together in different combinations and patterns to convey specific messages from one community to another. Native American wampum belts, with their dark and light beads, created a form of binary code for recalling the details of treaties. Almost all cultures have elaborate string games, like our own Cat's Cradle, which evoke ancient mythological stories.
So just how far have we come in our passion to braid art and text, performer and audience, tradition and innovation together? Where have the knotted strings, threaded images, and binary beads of storytelling taken us?
Last summer I learned html, another form of tying stories into knots. The code is strung together in the most seemingly abstract of ways then reinterpreted on a computer screen and read as a poem, a story, or an illustrated article like this one. This year however, my students have been pushing me to learn xhtml and the even more liberating CSS. Oh, with this code, they promise, I will be able to do even more with my stories: make them float on a page, make the images bright and fast, capture the attention of my audience sitting in front of the monitor. Yet, just as I struggled to learn these new codes, earnestly believing in their power, one of my students looked at me with a winsome smile and shook his head. He leaned down conspiratorially as I muddled at my computer and whispered, "Flash, Ms. Snyder. That's where it's all going on the net. Got to learn Flash."
I groaned at having to master another new string of code, yet I also celebrated. I celebrated because for the last three years I have been an ardent admirer of the quarterly online journal Born Magazine, one of the most innovative, experimental, and media–rich storytelling sites on the Web. Over the years since its inception, Born has boldly explored the creative potential of Flash and its sibling, Shockwave, to tell lyrical, unusual, and compelling stories. A non–profit, all–volunteer organization, the award winning Born brings "together writers, artists, musicians and technicians from diverse fields to produce innovative and sometimes highly experimental storytelling artworks." It is the collaborative nature of the work that is so astonishing. Each project, each story is the result of a creative process that successfully combines traditional and new forms of art, literature, music, diverse media, and emerging digital technologies.
Founded in Seattle, Washington, in 1996, originally as a free publication where writers and designers could collaborate on creative projects, Born expanded its scope and launched a web site with a focus on fiction, essays, film reviews, poems, and topical articles. But the evolution of the Web quickly encouraged the transformation of the magazine as artists experimented with the dynamic relationship between text, cinema, audio, and interactivity made possible by new web technologies. Beginning around the new millennium, the pieces appearing in the issues changed dramatically. Liberated from the constraints of traditional print columns, the text in Flash was free to scroll, swoop, and even explode across the page. The silence of print media gave way to sound with original music and the return of the storyteller’s voice accompanying the fluid arrangements of images. If the movement of oral stories into published text had once removed the robust performance aspect of storytelling, the collaboration of text, art, and interactive media technologies on the Web has restored this aspect to the viewer lucky enough to have broadband and good speakers!
Born is led by an incredible assortment of talented poets, graphic artists, and media specialists. Gabe Kean is Born’s award–winning art director whose projects include work in cultural institutions such as MOMA, The Smithsonian Institution, PBS, National Geographic, and Discovery/TLC. He has lectured extensively on interactive media, judged multimedia competitions, and is an advisor to the Sundance Film Festival. Anmarie Trimble is a published poet and an assistant professor in an interdisciplinary University Studies program at Portland State University. Previously she was an editor for Second Story Interactive Studios (whose tag line is "Elevating the Art of Storytelling") where she worked on projects for PBS, Experience Music Project, National Geographic, and Discovery/TLC. Contributing editors include poet and author Teenya Darlington (Madame Deluxe and Maybe Baby), Jennifer Grotz (Cusp, winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference), and poet Bruce Smith (Other Lover, finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and Mercy Seat, nominated by Chicago University for the National Book Award).
The technology team includes Sebastian Chevrel, Daryn Nakhuda, and Kim Markegard. Chevrel is a creative technologist focusing on interactive media programming; he has completed a diverse array of projects for Second Story, including a simulator for speed sailing in the ocean, a virtual exhibit of German Expressionism artists for MOMA, and the Theban Mapping Project, a web site that links a complex archeological database with different modes of visualization and interaction. With Gabe Kean, Chevrel co–produced one of the most dynamic pieces on Born: You and We, a collective, randomly paired show of images and words submitted by the audience, creating spontaneous and often surprising results. The project has received over 6000 texts and 2000 images from over 900 contributors, and is still growing. Nakhuda, a software specialist, has authored a chapter on Flash development and won numerous awards for interactive projects. Markegard is a software developer specializing in alternative technologies, combining work in physical computing, embedded systems, and media programming. Beyond this stellar leadership, Born invites submissions from an international network of contributors, who collaborate (some meeting for the first time on a project), and offer their various skills to develop a new literary arts experience on the Web.
“Over the years, we’ve found it very difficult to describe what we do, as it’s so different from what people expect a literary magazine to be,” editor Trimble says. Responding to critics’ tendency to regard the Web version of texts as substandard to their print cousins, Trimble responds, “Perhaps I’m naïve…Yes, there’s lots of junk online, and yes, why read something online when you can curl up with a book? But online has the potential to have a dramatic impact on literary arts.” It is certainly not the first time that the introduction of new media has had a profound impact on literature and storytelling. Oral traditions have been transformed by a variety of innovative media from the knotted string to the printed text, each innovation allowing for unexpected layers of meaning through the interaction of the work and its media. Poetry, Trimble points out, can intensify its meanings as it makes use of line breaks, evocative dashes, or nonlinear lines of text that become visual puns, all possible because the text is seen, rather than simply heard.
While the Web shares communalities with print versions of literary art, it also offers stunning differences and inspirational challenges. Born actively investigates the potential of technologies to give “birth” to new forms of literary experiences. Editors Jennifer Grotz and Anmarie Timble compare Born’s innovations with the 20th century French avant–guard movement of the Surrealists and its emphasis on "technicism," a desire to infuse dehumanizing technology and mechanics with a creative and spiritual realm. Trimble further explains this connection: "It is worth pondering, because in general, our culture is making strides towards humanizing the technology we continually uncover: think of the way cell phones, email, laptops, and other forms of 'communication technology' are marketed to and incorporated by our culture. We are living in a perhaps post–Romantic time, where we can no longer simply rebel against the dehumanization of technology, because it's not going away. That being the case, it is an interesting study to look at the ways our culture tries to incorporate technology in productive (and we would emphasize artistic) rather than in ominous ways." The Web may not offer some of the long–lived advantages of print media (though authors who have watched their books disappear after a brief stint in a bookstore might disagree), but it has the opportunity to exploit text and art in unique ways unmatched by other media. Rather than defining itself by the terms and standards of print media, Born focuses on pioneering new ways to tell stories in a digital age.