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My Journey with New Media Art and Digital Storytelling – Rhonda Jessen.com

My Journey with New Media Art and Digital Storytelling

Topic #2 for etmooc is Digital Storytelling. In addition to creating digital stories, we were challenged to critically examine the definition of digital storytelling on Wikipedia. While I think the Wikipedia definition gets at some of the aspects and history of digital storytelling, some of my experiences with digital storytelling are missing.

Here is the story of my journey with digital storytelling and new media art.

I started working at the Banff Centre of the Arts in 1997. At the time I didn’t know much about digital storytelling or even multimedia, or new media as it was often called at the time. I ran a computer department that helped artists use computers in their art practice. We supported artists in residence and provided technical support for workshops and summits (conferences.) Many of the events that we supported were part of The Banff New Media Institute. The Banff New Media Institute started in 1995. It “developed to become an internationally respected arts production and research institute, with programs designed to support creative pluralism, different modes of inquiry, the production of new work, and the engagement of artists, producers, technologists, and researchers with the aesthetics and culture of new media.” It is now called Media Research.

It was an interesting time; there were major shifts in the tools that were available and how they were accessed by artists. For example the Centre had moved from supporting virtual reality projects to supporting VRML. The immersive experiences required less expensive equipment to produce and display and were more accessible to viewers – instead of stereoscopic head mounted displays wired to computers, users could explore VRML worlds on their own computers.

Around the same time, the availability of tools changed, more tools were available and the prices were dropping. Instead of having to go to an arts centre to access computers and video editing suites, some artists were able to buy their own tools. Artists still came to the Centre to connect with other artists, for technical and artistic support, and to learn and connect at events like Avatar! Avatar! Wherefore Art Thou? Avatar which explored the future of virtual world design on the World Wide Web. (When was the last time you heard it called the World Wide Web?)

This put more tools in artists’ hands; but there was still a steep learning curve, not all artists could afford them or had the skills to operate them.

While I was at the Banff Centre I got to see (and in some cases assist in) the production of many new media art works, some of which were fascinating explorations of storytelling using a new tools. I am not arguing that all multimedia products tell a a digital story. While useful, the Encarta encyclopedia and many educational CDs are not examples of digital storytelling.

Some of the projects I supported that explored digital storytelling include:

  • Trace a memorial environmental sound installation that played stories at specific locations along a network of hiking trails near the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Yoho National Park, British Columbia.
  • Sea-Changes: A Meta-Biography which was a web-based collaborative biography project in which artists used pieces of other artists’ biographies to construct their autobiography.
  • Conversations with Angels VRML and Java-based 3D worlds which multiple users could navigate and trigger sound effects, animations, video clips and chat windows.
  • CyberPowWow 2K which brought ten participating artists and writers together to work individually and collectively on digital pieces that explored the place, both real and dreamed, where Native meets non-Native and to install them in a virtual gallery.
  • The Writing Machine an interactive text and sound-based work for the web where recorded personal histories were modified according to erosion, percolation, sedimentation, fracture, and page-cycling models.

Over time the tools became easier to use, artists developed stronger skill sets, and the digital stories that they were able to produce were often more technically complex as you can see from the examples above. But there were still barriers, including access to tools and the ability to use them.

These barriers are falling away. The explosion of Web 2.0 tools has allowed all of us to be able to create and share digital stories, as we are doing this week in etmooc. Web 2.0 is not just about access to tools, it is a paradigm shift. As Henri Jenkins et al stated in 2006, we are now living in a Participatory Culture which includes:

  • “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  • strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others
  • and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.”

It is now much easier for us to create our own digital stories, and others in our networks suggest tools to explore and offer suggestions and support when we run into problems.

Now I am taking part in etmooc, writing, sharing and discussing digital stories with others. Join us!

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