Birmingham Book Festival: Reliable Witness

Posted on October 5, 2012


A little further afield, Birmingham Book Festival is swinging into gear. One of it’s features this year is an unusual and exciting new interactive storytelling project. Guest blogger Sarah-Clare Conlon from Words and Fixtures tells us more:

As advances in consumer technology continue apace and we don’t seem to tire of flocking to the latest social media platforms to spread our gossip to friends and total strangers alike, traditional outlets for artistic endeavours can appear flat and unglossy, even disparate and ungainly. Just look at the old paperback v Kindle argument. Really, who wouldn’t want to float around clutching a compact e-reader in their mitt rather than lumber about lugging tomes of heavy dead wood in a backpack?

From an artist’s point of view, embracing technology can offer all kinds of advantages, from raising profile to driving sales. It can also be a boon to the creative process, in some cases even becoming an integral part of the final piece. The Reliable Witness literary project is a perfect example of tapping into 21st-century developments, bringing together online networking, real-time flashmobbing and even crowdsourcing to tell a story in an exciting, innovative and completely interactive way.

Specially commissioned by the forward-thinking Birmingham Book Festival (which runs writing workshop all-nighters, for starters!), Reliable Witness kicked off in a very public way at the city’s Artsfest on Saturday 8 September – with what appeared to be an onstage marriage proposal gone horribly wrong. Audience members at the UK’s biggest free arts festival were unaware that it was all an act until the scene was over and they were handed flyers inviting them to decide what happens next. It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but for grown-ups with smart phones.

Darren and Amy are the couple at the centre of things, with further players attempting to influence how individuals choose between the different options available to move the story on. These are presented via a website, various social networking sites, and, during Birmingham Book Festival itself, a physical installation in the city centre’s Pavilions shopping centre. Participants are encouraged to upload photos or videos they may have taken of the public humiliation, and are asked to “like” the different characters’ Facebook pages and follow their updates there and on Twitter. The plot will unravel via these profile updates until the purpose-built site opens on 4 October, when things get really interesting, and the online and offline worlds collide…

Birmingham Book Festival, which, in its 14th year, takes place 4-13 October, commissioned the piece as an experiment to see how technology can be introduced to literature. “It’s the first true interactive storytelling experience we will have been involved in,” says Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive for Writing West Midlands, the team behind the annual event. “We’ve had successful immersive installations as part of the Festival in previous years, such as David Gaffney and Ailís Ní Ríain’s Boy You Turn Me in 2011, but we wanted to explore the potential of running something using digital technologies that our audiences could make an active contribution to.”

Sara Beadle, Programmes Director at Writing West Midlands, continues: “The Birmingham Book Festival is excited to be working with Red Lantern Project Management again after a very successful commission in 2011. This year’s project stretches the boundaries of both digital arts experiences and the way in which literature is presented, enjoyed and understood, which is a primary objective of the Festival.

“Each year, the Festival presents events and ideas that bring literature to the fore as an art form that helps us interrogate and understand our lives and our world. Integrating digital media with literature is challenging beyond the relatively well-known platforms of eBooks, social media and the internet. The Festival seeks opportunities such as the one offered by Reliable Witness to lead the field in doing this, creating new and distinct experiences that exploit and make sense of the wealth of technology available to curate a highly unique audience experience.”

Technology and literature have of course been combined before, with projects such as the Manchester-based Rainy City Stories linking to Google Maps to literally put poetry and prose on the map, and conferences such as last year’s Immersive Writing Lab in London or workshops like Tactical Transmedia Fictions at the recent AND Festival, both of which discussed the potential of using internet platforms and networked devices to disseminate a narrative.

The difference with Reliable Witness is that the story is also told in the real world, not just the ether. The installation itself will engage individual audience members in the storytelling experience by actively encouraging them to undertake tasks and react to prompts, such as a ringing telephone. Essentially, the audience member becomes less a spectator and more an actual character in the unravelling plot, making snap decisions which drive the narrative forward and influence its outcome, of which there are a number of alternatives. There are phone calls, video clips, digital photographs and social media interactions within the digitally enhanced space, which is fitted out to represent the flat of the by-now disintegrating couple.

Lauren Davies is from the project management company Red Lantern, coordinators of the ambitious undertaking. “This really is an event with a difference,” she says. “We’re joining forces with The Adhere Creative, who are delivering the technical aspects of the event. It’s a truly collaborative process from start to finish, between the writing duo of Mez Packer and Rochi Rampal, Karl and Wayne and the team at Adhere Creative as the digital developers, and myself and Sara Beadle at Birmingham Book Festival designing the overall concept. The practicalities are immense, such as squeezing the most we can out of the budget we have and working across multiple platforms for presenting the story.

“We’re really pleased to have partnered up with the Pavilions as the venue for Reliable Witness – there’s something very rich and unpredictable about locating arts experiences in city-centre shopping centres. We’ve also been supported with sponsorship from legal firm Cobbetts LLP, avid exponents of literature events, and we’ve received help from Birmingham Central Library and funding from Arts Council England’s Grants For The Arts scheme to ensure the event is a success.

“We’ve had to bring in a lot of additional expertise, but it’s a great challenge and so exciting to be involved in a completely new art form… no one has done this before, certainly not in Birmingham.”

The writing itself has also been a challenge, with so many options and threads to tie up into a convincing ending. Getting to grips with the non-linear storytelling has been the task of a team of two: West Midlands-based writer Mez Packer and Rochi Rampal, a theatre professional living in Birmingham.

Mez, author of The Game Is Altered and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2010 shortlisted novel Among Thieves, says: “Writing Reliable Witness was entirely different from my usual creative process. First it was collaborative, which meant brainstorming initial ideas with a group of five or six people rather than working alone. After that, Rochi and I got down to what we know best – characterisation, plot, dialogue. There were several rewrites and moments when the story strands felt they would never add up – but that’s where the collaborative element was the most helpful, with everyone in the group thinking about outcomes. The most exciting thing now will be to see the whole thing come to fruition. We both have such a clear idea of what we want the audience to experience and can’t wait to experience the installation for ourselves.”

Rochi agrees: “It’s been a real challenge – but definitely a satisfying one. The process of writing a story that is in some ways limited by the presence of digital technology, but also ultimately freed up by its possibilities has been really fascinating. It’s going to be great to see it all up on its feet. Mez and I haven’t been in the shop unit since our last story meeting, and since then it’s been transformed and the installation has been built. We’re really looking forward to finding out how others experience the story, and to getting in there ourselves so that we can experience it.”

Reliable Witness really does promise to be a cultural event with a difference, offering a totally unique experience for every participant and a chance for members of the public to feel they are contributing to the creation of a brand-new artwork. It will be interesting to see if the project can meet the high ambitions it has set itself and pull artists and individuals together to produce a coherent and consistent level of storytelling that stands alone as a piece of literature – but whatever happens, it’s certainly a bold and brave experiment for the bookish world.

And whatever does happen, is up to you…

The Reliable Witness installation will be open daily in the Pavilions Shopping Centre (Unit 10, Level 2 Lower Ground Floor, Birmingham, B4 7SL): Monday – Saturday 10am–6pm; Sunday 11am–5pm. Admission is free.

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