A Shift in the (My) Landscape

Two months have passed since the Forward Slash Story Lab. In the natural order of things, the weekend’s retreat has etched itself in my memory into brief but lasting impressions…

The taste of Rein’s green juice, every morning a revelation… The sounds of giggling over Richard’s Sasquatch game and Brian’s lemon-fencing victory as we explored analog competitive games… The studied concentration of each sequential conversation during World Café, discussions that elicited as much clarity as confusion on the future of storytelling… The swell of emotion and dizziness brought on by Oscar’s VR experience, showing me how art on Oculus Rift could soar. That last piece was my first inkling that my landscape was about to shift.

Oscar’s story, one of inherited memory, was the first story on Oculus Rift that has made any sense to me, emotionally or otherwise. The story deals with Oscar’s relationship to his father, an officer in Chile’s military regime, stemming from Oscar’s inherited memories of one of his father’s experiences just after the 1973 coup, and is in some ways an interrogation of complicity of the watcher, and an inquiry on the import of hereditary responsibility. The piece touched me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. For over the past decade, I have worked at the intersection of human rights and global development, using culture and storytelling as my mode of advocacy. Among the range of projects lying at the intersection points of my work are projects relating to memory, story, and atrocity. The experience of Oculus Rift strikes me as isolating and distancing. But Oscar’s piece opened up entirely new questions on memory and how we might interpret and empathize through virtual reality – a mode I had previously dismissed as useless to activism. Even though in the wrong artist’s hands Oculus might remain isolating and distancing – the direct opposite of what we need to create empathy — I realized there was a value to pushing these boundaries of technology and narrative through VR for the purposes of shifts in perception and connection.

This feeling floated me into the next day, when I realized the landscape was about to shift for all of us. The daytime sessions on Saturday were less smooth, more frustrating, in their structure – they were too light on unstructured discussion, and even lighter on directed action, than the day prior. But a course correction in the late afternoon led to a series of separate breakthroughs for a number of us that all ended in the same, shared solution. Through a series of disparate conversations, nearly half of F/S attendees started to talk about the need for a better way to cultivate and reach audiences, a venue for creators and audiences to create a community together. And the idea of Hyphen – a movement, a platform, and a festival – was born.

The need for Hyphen is simple. It aims to create a new way to bring what we all do – the kind of multi-disciplinary art and multi-sector engagement that is the multi-hyphenated F/S community’s expertise – into direct contact with audiences. We lack this in our industry and in our community.

So why does this shift in our collective landscape cause a ripple in mine, directed at activism and not art? For two reasons: First, this is the first time I have been involved in a conference or retreat where there was a tangible, actionable outcome at the end of it. That it wasn’t planned makes this somehow more magical – but it still demonstrates the possibilities for other similar events. Given the depth and scale of social issues we have to confront, I am no longer interested in attending conferences where nothing happens but talking and being talked at. Gathering inquisitive, dedicated professionals into a group should lead to a project or program that is actionable if we are going to solve our problems.

The other reason relates to the quote I cite above by the jazz artist Vijay Iyer – himself a multi-hyphenate — in which he calls to the life of service that all artists must embrace. I call instead to the converse, to the life attuned to culture that all activists must live. A life of service in the realm of social change / justice / impact requires a life that is wholly attuned to culture, and one that is immersed in the arts. I believe a life of service is dependent on understanding the cultural identity and cultural expression of a place and a community. Above all, I believe all activists must understand people’s stories. But the activist community doesn’t often have the chance to play or to experiment with the future of storytelling. And I believe that’s crucial to our world’s development and improvement in every aspect.

Forward Slash Story was that kind of chance for me. I hope Hyphen continues to play that out.

Lina Srivastava is a strategist who combines technology, culture, art, and storytelling for social transformation. As the Founder of a social innovation strategy collaborative in New York City, Lina has created the Transmedia Activism framework and has worked on strategic project design with a group of social impact organizations including Internews, MobileActive, the Safer Mobile Project, 3Generations, Donor Direct Action, UNICEF, the World Bank Institute, and UNESCO. Lina has been involved in social engagement campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal?. An intellectual property attorney by training, and the former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts.

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