Reflecting on creative practice

Professor Graham Mort continues his thoughts on his experiences with Lancaster's Pilot Project.

In the first of these articles on my experience of the Creative Exchange with the Digital Fiction Factory, based at Media City in Salford, I focused on the experience of interacting with the commercial sector as an academic. In this second article, I want to consider the effect of the projects on me as a creative practitioner. 

 

As I pointed out in that first article, the projects I worked on were subject to industrial copyright and it meant that I couldn’t ‘write up’ my involvement in the projects as research outputs. As a practitioner my personal research outputs have been poetry (including long poems and sequences) short fiction, and radio productions.

 

On the DFF project I became a jobbing writer creating speech bubbles for graphic storytelling, making visual narratives from selected video stills, devising puzzles, selecting narrative lines from complex multi-stranded video footage, devising branching narratives, writing new scenes for a popular TV series, even simulating 18th century legal documents for a historical drama.
It was a bewildering variety of writing and editing tasks, each performed under pressure against project deadlines, so that on any one day I might have been producing work for three entirely different productions. Not only that, but the way these new prototypes worked had to be envisaged across four digital platforms ranging from conventional TV to Internet TV, tablets and smart phones.

One interesting aspect of that process was the overturning of my out-dated concept of the user experience. Anxiety about the possibly isolating nature of experiencing TV alone was replaced by the realisation that users were being joined to an incredibly rich set of scientific, historical, social and cultural resources through the links we were building into the prototypes. Secondly, users were no longer experiencing TV in isolation but were simultaneously engaging with their peers through social media, so that issues in a TV programme might be trending on Twitter as users simultaneously watched and reflected upon the watching experience.

That sense of the multiple responses of users – personal and public – was a very stimulating for a writer working in a field where new apps are being developed for literature so that readers can operate on the move and access menus of new writing. But the benefits that the challenges of the project brought were also more directly beneficial – though not always in direct ways. Working with video footage and TV drama was an obvious technical requirement where visual narrative, dialogue and dynamic editing were all needed to match the content and pace of the original footage we were augmenting. Branching narratives are also part and parcel of short fiction, though the process of running them as distinct alternative pathways was a new one.

What was most interesting to me was that what seemed the most remote form of practice within the projects – the making of graphic storybooks – proved to be the most stimulating. In poetry the word ‘stanza’ derives form the Italian word for ‘room’ and it quickly dawned on me that the pictorial frames in a storybook worked in analogous ways. Just like stanzas in a poem, frames in a storybook could contain action and imagery, or it could allow it to spill out of them through a form of visual ‘enjambment’. Making those connections helped me to work in a medium that at first seemed alien and also fed back into my notions of how poetry did – and could – work, both as a lyric and narrative medium and as a visual one with a marked spatial dimension.

Originally, I became involved in these DFF projects with some apprehension. My engagement came about partly because I felt that I wanted to contribute to this new work at Lancaster and partly because I knew that artists have to allow themselves to be challenged by new practice if they are to continue to develop. The immediate effects of my involvement have given way to a slow-burn conceptual affect – an exciting revival of my sense that creative techniques can be joined up into new forms of narrative and non-narrative meanings.