Lessons from The Story conference

Posted by Ellen | Filed under Design & technology, Events.


Last Friday I took a day out and went to Story 2012. It’s not your usual kind of conference. It’s a mixed bag of brain food organised by Matt Locke from Channel 4, perfect for filling up on stuff-you-never-knew-you-wanted-to-know.

Nestled into the toasty Conway Hall, I noticed the phrase “To thine own self be true” painted over the top of the stage and wondered how the conference might joggle my sense of self in the world, if at all.

Here’s what I learned:

Lucy and Ben
Yes, you can open a shop called ‘Monster Supplies’ for the good of mankind.
Inspiration: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Lucy and Ben run Hoxton Street Monster Supplies as a shop front and source of funding for a project called The Ministry of Stories which gives kids the opportunity to “exercise the right to tell their stories and be heard”. They’re always looking for volunteers for both the Ministry of Stories and their Adventure Tourism Agency where children restructure their neighbourhoods using the power of their imagination.

Jeremy Deller
“Rub together two worlds”

Inspiration: 3 out of 5 stars

To me, Jeremy Deller’s talk was about the interesting effects you can create by switching contexts. In Jeremy’s case this was by organising the re-enacting (or bringing back into consciousness) of the miners’ strikes using a re-enactment society who aren’t normally used to this kind of subject matter. He was interested in bringing the lesser told histories of Britain back to life i.e. “looking at a wound and poking about rather than put a plaster over it”

Liz Henry
Weave intricate stories within stories and explore the phenomenon known as ‘sock-puppeting’

Inspiration: 3 out of 5 stars

In a sort of nutshell, Liz was talking about her investigatory role in identifying fake lesbian bloggers all over the internet. Liz’s story charted her investigation of how Amina, an Iranian lesbian, caused a huge media furore when she went missing. Amina turned out not to be a real person, but instead she was the persona of a male blogger, and it turns out Amina was certainly not the only fake lesbian blogger on the internet.

The most inspiring thing about this talk for me was the strength of people being able to create personas through storytelling and almost live inside their characters (sock puppets) in order to weave an intricate web of lies (or stories).

Anthony Owen (Head of Magic at Objective Productions)
I am now also Head of Magic at The Copy House

Inspiration: 4 out of 5 stars

We seem to have an innate will as humans to want to believe something even if it is impossible, as often appears to be the case when it comes to magic. We want to be compelled by illusion. Anthony talked about this possible impossibility as a catharsis, and how the job of the magician is to take something very profound and make it trivial – sawing a beautiful woman in half, for example.

Anthony’s description of how you ‘brand’ a magic trick, or tell its story was fascinating. He said a magic trick needs to be a simple one-sentence description e.g ‘The trick where they saw a woman in half’.

He said “The secret stuff should be invisible and not get in the way of a really simple plot”.

That’s also how copywriting, storytelling and branding works – which makes my job a bit like being a magician. I like it!

Matthew Herbert
Imagine what the future sounds like

Inspiration: 3 out of 5 stars

“Mozart had the same instrument as Theolonius Monk but it took hundreds of years before it was made”. Matthew was talking about music as a way of interacting with the world – from recording the sounds of crabs on a ship in Vancouver, to a meal in a cafe in Vienna. He loves how sounds tell stories.

There were a couple of phrases he said that I liked:

“Something that sounds enormous to you sounds minor to someone else.” He was talking about eating an apple.
“You can always learn something by submitting yourself to the process.” He was talking about recording a pig giving birth for 12 hours, which is a surprisingly quiet process.

Scott Burnham
Trust people to enjoy and design their spaces

Inspiration 4.95 out of 5 stars

At the moment, public design doesn’t often involve what people want – it ‘needs waking up’. Scott wants to help us change our relationship with the things we share, namely our urban spaces and city furniture.

He’s interested in the stories:

  • that people feel in cities
  • people make with their hands
  • that contain memories of spaces
  • that are assigned to locations
  • that allow and encourage intervention

He asks people what they want from their spaces and feeds the stories back into them, whether they’re a child who ‘want a dinosaur which is also a chair’ – he give people what they wish for, no matter how crazy it is. He asks ‘What if?’

He told the most inspiring story of the day about giving 250,000 pennies to a group of people in Amsterdam to create an art work. The second phase of the project was “open up the process and let them rework it”. Things didn’t quite go as planned though, as he woke up one morning to find the whole thing had been taken away and ‘secured’ by the police.

One of the best sentences of the conference was “What we create will always go away, but it’s the story of what we do that will always last

Ellie Harrison- Artist, activist, administrator
Engage in unashamed administration.
Inspiration 3 out of 5 stars.

Ellie went through a long period (of years) obsessively recording everything she ate. When she was bored of that, she started to record everything she did, logging all her activities on a spreadsheet on log tables at the end of the day – producing beautiful and fascinating info graphics and sculptures.

The thing that I took away from Ellie’s talk is her sense of conviction for pursuing apparently crazy goals. A kind of limitless thinking. As well as this, I loved the way she used very businesslike language and formulae as a frame for her ideas e.g. a manual for use for her artworks.

My favourite phrases from her talk were:
“I use playful strategies to communicate with other people”
“Production of commodities for an cynical marketplace – creating a kind of guilt of production”

Karen Lubbock and Jeremy Leslie
You don’t always have to give people what they think they want to hear.
Inspiration: 3 out of 5 stars

Karen’s magazine ‘Karen’ is an interesting publication about ordinary things.

It contains curated images of everyday life and day-to-day stories, or as she phrases it: “The fabric of the everyday that isn’t noticed or profiled in mainstream media”.

I was interested to hear about her process – where she physically puts all her images and texts out on the floor and moves things around.

Danny O’Brian
Build your own island, no matter who you are.

Inspiration 4.5 out of 5 stars

I was compelled by Danny’s talk, principally because of this curiosity I have about the sense of conviction for tiny things. Interesting things he said included:

There’s a festival called Ephemerisle where you have to build your own island. I like the sound of that.

There is such a thing as an Anarchist Yacht Club.

If you’re on a mission to change the world, can you be sure you’re not doing something evil (and getting rich by mistake)? Evil people rarely believe they’re becoming evil.

Tiny projects or ideas can explode and expand incredibly quickly if they have a world changing quality to them.

What I got was that it’s ok to go ahead and play ‘the stupid game’ and then go ahead to use that game to change the universe. He says “Don’t let anyone tell you your game is stupid.”

At the end of the conference my to-do list has these actions on it… hopefully to help me with the art of ‘to mine own self being true':

  • Write to the ministry of stories and volunteer to do a Not for the Faint Hearted session
  • Run more Not for the Faint Hearted writing sessions
  • Write more blog posts about small things that enthuse me
  • Find more inspiring women presenters to watch for inspiration for my own business talks
  • Find the extraordinary in the ordinary and point at it somehow – figure out how
  • Have stupid ideas and follow them up – like making a Marabou puppet

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