Charles Melcher, Founder and Director of Future of StoryTelling in New York, talks storytelling, connection, and how new technologies can help get us into our bodies and out of our comfort zones.

Many of the works in Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age position the visitor at the centre of his or her own experience or the hero of the story. What was the inspiration there?
We actually want, and have an expectation, to have a role to play, to have agency, to impact the story or even to co-author the story. We see things like the growth of fan fiction. People aren’t content to just read about these characters, they want to make up their own stories. There are all these other examples in place now that people want to be able to be 'in' the story. That’s the basis for this curatorial statement and this selection: to explore and celebrate this next generation of immersive storytelling.

Perhaps since human beings have always found ways to participate in their stories, these new technologies allow us to bring that involvement to new levels?
What happened before is a lot of the technology had been alienating. We had separated from that natural state of wanting to be participatory. One of the things that [Sensory Stories] last year (and this year) celebrates is being in our bodies. We had been disconnected from our own bodies, as we spent so many hours in front of screens.

Now, these technologies are catching up to enable things that are more naturally human. I look at genres or fields like dance, improv comedy, immersive theatre… as places to be inspired now because these are forms where people are physically present, they're alive, they're participatory, they're acting and living in three-dimensional space. These are all things that hold lessons for this next generation of storytellers using digital media.

How do some of the exhibition's works not only transport us into our bodies, but closer to each other and to the sensory reality of human experience?
I think for one, just adding additional senses so we're having a multi-sensory experience… which when you're alive, and you're conscious, you are having. [For example], going shopping, you're hearing the noises and seeing the beautiful fruits and smelling the fragrances… you are a multi-sensory being. So why is it that so much of our media only plays to one or two of those senses? Simply by engaging things like touch or smell as part of the storytelling world, we're engaging more of our body, more of our brain and we're creating a more holistic, more human experience.

Beyond entertainment, what are some of the other potential uses of these technologies?
I was just talking to a friend of mine who has a company that just produced a VR experience that teaches CPR to help resuscitate somebody. Several people can be in the experience at the same time. It helps you learn what you have to do to practice it physically, and also to address the anxiety and fear of approaching somebody who's, let's say, just collapsed. Many people's response to that is to walk by. She was explaining that the opportunity to learn how to step into the experience and really address the victim, and overcome the natural desire to step away, is really enhanced by being this virtual reality experience. It's already has proven effect of being a powerful educational tool that can ultimately save lives. Because there's something about being in that immersive experience that you acclimate to addressing some of the other obstacles to giving CPR.

Most of us set up our lives to avoid confronting our our fears, which of course can be an obstacle to not only learning CPR, but to personal growth and evolution. It's interesting that one could have an experience so visceral we can practice overcoming fears.
I produced a pop-up book years ago called The Pop-Up Book of Phobias [by Gary Greenberg, 1999]. It has exactly the same idea, which was to create a kind of immersive therapy where you had to face your fear.

Certain technologies, virtual reality for example, are letting us explore fringes of our comfort zones, or have the potential to do that. Which by the way, storytelling has always done. Our fascination with horror films or war pictures are all ways for us to learn about ourselves or learn through other people's experience that we can relate to. There's something about the human condition, and our own psyche, somehow facing our fears and exploring parts we would not otherwise explore

There's this idea in calculus that the only way you can really test a formula is by putting the extreme points, you test it at infinity and you test it at zero. I think that stories at times [can] let us test who we are by experiencing the extreme points, [and] dance, theatre, film... are all in my definition of storytelling!

How do you see this language evolving?
I think we're at very early stages of all this right now, I see a lot of different experiments happening where people are playing with these new forms and trying to discover the language of these new media. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking virtual reality and certain types of interactive technologies are just the natural evolution of film, for example. I don't believe that – I believe it's its own unique medium and we're often doing what we've traditionally done with new technologies, which is use them the way we've used the old ones because that's what we know, until we figure out how to really create a unique language, vocabulary or syntax for the new medium.

For example in cinema, it took us 20 years to come up pan and montage and cuts... the language of film. So I'm very excited by the artists and auteurs working in the field now and trying to encourage that community to experiment and to find out how to use VR in unique ways.

What we try to do at FoST and the work we've been able to do with the Phi Centre and these exhibits is to try to encourage and stimulate a community of explorers working at the cutting edge of these new technologies and art forms. Our hope is that together we will be able to accelerate the evolution of these art forms and help them find their true voice.

Curated once again by New York’s Future of StoryTelling (FoST), and produced by Phi in partnership with Future of StoryTelling, the exhibition Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age will feature 14 works by worldwide pioneers of emerging technologies, including a piece by Montreal’s Felix & Paul Studios, and a work by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

About Centre Phi
The Phi Centre is a versatile space with venues that adapt to accommodate the event at hand: launches, conferences, seminars, screenings, exhibitions, concerts, performances, interactive installations. It has creative studios and production suites equipped with the latest technology for all artistic needs. It’s a multifunctional centre where art can express itself in its various forms. It’s a space where people can exchange, learn, discover, launch, shoot, record, and more.
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