10th Oct 2012
Reliable Witness: a new digital lit experiment
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. 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. What followed was 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 were encouraged to upload photos or videos they may have taken of the public humiliation, and asked to “like” the different characters’ Facebook pages and follow their updates there and on Twitter. From 4th October, when the purpose-built site opened, things started to get really interesting, as the online and offline worlds collided…
Sara Beadle, Programmes Director at Writing West Midlands, says: “This 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.”
The Reliable Witness installation 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.
This 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 until 13th October in the Pavilions Shopping Centre (Unit 10, Level 2 Lower Ground Floor, Birmingham, B4 7SL): Monday – Saturday 10am–6pm. Admission is free. You can also follow on Twitter: @ReliableWitness #reliablewitness