What is a story? Over the past 40 plus years of teaching English, that always seemed like an easy answer. It’s a work that has a plot, characters, maybe a theme, setting—and action done by someone in the work. But over the last couple of years I’ve wondered if perhaps I am too limited in my definition.
Two summers ago, I went to a Creativity workshop in New York which focused many things, including “telling stories and writing memoirs.” Together we sat and told vignettes from life based on pictures or objects we had brought. At another point, we took things we had written and worked with partners revising and then reshaping them. Some things involved taking pictures and basing ideas from them.
When I came across the work of storyteller, part conceptual artist, and amazing computer programmer Jonathan Harris, I was delighted to find someone asking some of the same questions I have had. In two lectures from 2007 on TED and with three programs that he has posted online, I think he nudges us to think more creatively about the term “story.”
In the first lecture, Harris explains three projects.
The first, We Feel Fine, looks at what I would call story vignettes, one sentence really quick suggests much longer ideas and forces the viewer into an interactive process of analysis and storytelling.
The second project, The Whale Hunt, deals with his experience whale hunting in northern Alaska and culminated in over a thousand photographs of the experience, taken every five minutes while he lived the experience (or as the action got more intense he did as many as 37 a minute.
The final project deal with interviews in Bhutan, high in the Himalayans, where he interviewed over 100 people there, photographed everyone—a portrait, their hands, them with balloons representing their happiness and wishes, and them making a funny face.
According to Harris, stories have characters, concepts, locations (contexts), color, time, dates and excitement levels (heart-beats).
One of the ideas he feels is that stories do not need a narrator, that that is something we add. Having recently read a chapter on the use of point-of-view and how it shapes a written work, I don’t know if I quite agree with that.
In Harris’ second lecture, he talks about our need to express ourselves and how these small views of one’s life have moved onto the internet. The first example is another explanation of “We Feel Fine,” a program “passively observes” that searches the internet for statement “I feel …,” which are then translated into a moving colored dot, that gives not just the sentence, but also connects to photos from the original blogs, becomes part of a visual montage. Then using various constructs such as mobs, metrics, and mounds, he tries to understand the individual data about the sentence.
The Yahoo Time Capsule (2006) came from one month online and culminated in a light show which dynamically shows the power of the visual images he had collected.
From images of the light show in the sky, he moves on to his next question: What new pictures in the sky would we see? His project result is called Universe, which deals with our modern personal mythologies. Each dot represents a quote from a person taken from global news. Snapshots are connected also.
Other works online that Harris has helped create include the following