CMF Day 1: The Artists Formerly Known as the Audience

By Ellie Lavan

Storytellers became audience members at BFI Southbank on Tuesday. Over 350 people working throughout media entered Power to the Pixel’s seventh annual Cross-Media Forum to hear from some of the industry’s smartest minds. From advertisers to visual artists, from the Super Sprowtz Sisters to one Super Furry Animal, the focus of all these innovators was clearly shared. These are storytellers whose craft depends on the needs, behaviours and motivations of their audience. They design for people, not platforms.


Elan Lee, Xbox Entertainment Studios

Pioneering storyteller and technologist, Elan Lee opened the morning. Whether implicating unsuspecting Wendy’s staff in the ‘cultural event’ of Halo, weaving the story of the Founding Fathers into the EDOC laundry clothing line, or storming Nine Inch Nails concerts with SWAT teams, it’s been Elan’s career mission to travel with his audiences through his narrative journeys. Audiences need a handle on the story they’re being told from the outset – especially if they’re the ones empowered to drive it forward. But his keynote emphasised how difficult that can be, especially since we don’t really know what medium we’re moving in. And it seemed that for many of the day’s speakers, the transmedia notion is becoming less and less satisfying.

The importance of titles became evermore clear as Elan ran through cultural history, from Caxton’s printing press to the Xbox 360, to demonstrate that though it’s not the responsibility of content creators to define their form, it’s essential that they remain restless about the language used to describe it.

Clint Beharry, senior creative technologist at Harmony Institute, explored how the sort of linguistic frames storytellers use can shape an audience’s understanding of an issue and, most importantly, the extent to which they care about it. But how do you evaluate such an impact? Clint showcased how Harmony Institute are using big data for the good, scanning press, social media and expert blogs to chart the reach of social issue stories. This mass of information will feed a linguistic map orienting filmmakers within their field and showing them where they can remain connected to their original message while reaching new territory.

Advertisers and content creators need to think hard and think together about how to provoke audiences according to Wayne Fletcher of Naked Communications Worldwide. With 91% of content recipients motivated by the concept of real time storytelling, Wayne argued that it’s only through provocations that people can begin to react to products in truly profitable ways. To his mind, there’s a white space that exists between the two industries that’s there to be colonised by collaborative adventurers ready to take big creative leaps into the realm of an evolving audience, and mine big data for the human stories it can tell.


Clint Beharry, Harmony Institute

Human stories founded the four projects presented in the afternoon. Lance Weiler explained how Reboot Stories strive for simplicity as they make climate change relevant to kids through ‘show and not tell’ with Lyka’s Adventure.  Meanwhile, visual artist Stan Douglas demonstrated how the decisions of a present user can affect the way in which we tell the past. His partnership with Loc Dao at NFB Interactive has produced Circa 1948, a documentary project that recreates episodes in the under explored history of Vancouver’s underworld. Together, they’ve built a storyworld over the realms of live theatre, installation art and interactive documentary, and wrapped the package in social narrative.

Power to the Pixel’s founder and CEO Liz Rosenthal began the day by defining the Forum as an assembly of platform agnostics: artists working to keep apace of digital change across industry silos. These agnostics are pushing stable definitions of what their work ‘is’ in order to produce stories which continually excite, engage and challenge audiences. There could have been no better closing act, then, than Super Furry Animals’ lead singer Gruff Rhys.

Gruff’s presentation of developing work American Interior returned the day to the story and its progress. In a state of carefully-managed haphazardness, the American adventure of Gruff’s 18th-century ancestor John Evans was recreated through music, visual projection, puppetry, and his own deadpan commentary in front of the live Cross-Media Forum audience. At the same time, Gruff himself became a sort of audience member, as we watched him encounter and document this extraordinary life in his collage of concert and comedy.

As well as securing this live art existence for Evans’ biography, a film documentary of American Interior will be released in March 2014. Gruff is also working with Penguin’s digital development director Nathan Hull, to produce this story in book form. Like many of today’s speakers, Nathan was intrigued by the fundamental question of how we define these products: he joked that it would be helpful for Penguin’s PR department if someone figured out whether it’s cross-media or transmedia or interactive documentary we’re looking at in a project such as American Interior. But for the restless creators at the centre of CMF today there’s no doubt that they’ll continue to play – to redefine and push their work beyond seemingly fixed boundaries – much to the delight of their audiences.

See a full list of the day’s speakers here. Watch out for videos from the talks at The Pixel Report.