Exclusive: DragonCon 2013 – The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth
Fiction and non-fiction, fact and myth, often aren’t opposites.
These lines blend a little more every day. When these things play such a crucial role in our news as well as entertainment media, and in a world where social media platforms are often at the front lines of cultural revolutions, it is increasingly necessary that these things are understood. Join us for a discussion on this topic, along with links to a variety of articles that expand upon and support the limited amount that can be discussed in a 45 minute panel.
This three person panel is a truncated transcript of the initial Dragon*Con discussion, moderated by David Metcalfe. The other two participants were transmedia artist James Curcio and Damien Williams, who you may have caught at one of many other panels at Dragon*Con this year including “How To Be a Comics Scholar,” “Devouring Selfhood: Zombies In Narrative,” “Gender, Race, and Identities in Comics,” and many others. Links have been added to provide further context. Full bios at the end.
David Metcalfe: The novel or fiction format provides a lot of developmental potential for ideas to foment, for authors and readers alike. Personal mythologies worked into a fictional format can take on a life of their own. How has your experience been with that?
Damien Williams: I don’t have much recent experience but in the heady days of mIRC, I built a number of storytelling personas as what Grant Morrison referred to as “Fiction Suits.” Narratives to live as, to wear to bring certain elements of my life. Recently, I’ve tried it out with a narrative of my life as a series of breaths, in The Immanence of Myth, and a future version of myself, on Twitter.
James Curcio: I think the very ideas of ‘fiction’ vs ‘nonfiction,’ or myth as untruth are major barriers in creating honest mythic work. Myths don’t begin as “myths”. They begin as something that genuinely speaks to us. Narratives directly affect our nervous system. I believe you talked about that in one of your pieces in Apocalyptic Imaginary. And “myth” isn’t a claim of truth or untruth. So let’s try to clear that up right away. (Note: Fiction vs non-fiction in literature | Myth vs. untruth)
There’s a larger issue here. There are many interesting cases where the lines were blurred, but… let’s see. For instance, Jenkem is a case where a complete fiction was picked up by the press. Soon every news station was reporting that kids are getting high huffing feces. Various real atrocities were collectively reported as ‘zombie attacks’ in 2012. Fact and fiction aren’t opposites but this raises certain questions in regard to journalism. Questions that I think Hunter S Thomas divined in a drug fueled stupor. What is the responsibility of the writer versus the journalist, right? And what about the fiction of a writer or artist’s persona? The documentary Kumare raises this issue in the context of religion. He lied to tell the truth. Some others just lie. There’s a difference though many can’t see it.
David Metcalfe: So the work becomes something more like a vehicle of experience?
James Curcio: I think a better way of putting it is that this—thinking of media as myth—is a way of making personal experience sensible as public experience. And the lines between fact and fiction, as I said, are often far from clear.
Damien Williams: Exactly. If the narrative is compelling enough, then it can spur us—and those around us—to act and live differently.
David Metcalfe: …Which almost seems a form of practice in itself?
James Curcio: The myth, as media, is alchemy. In simple terms…Alchemy was supposedly about turning lead to gold, right? Or, in general, the transmutation of matter. So people often look at it as a sort of rudimentary, or ill-conceived attempt at chemistry. But instead, the “matter” is the self. I think one of Jung’s biggest contributions was this one insight: that alchemy—and the occult as well—pertains to the psyche.
So if you look at it that way, you can immediately see two sides: as a creator, you conduct alchemy through media and transmute your personal experience, both psychologically and by turning it from private to public experience. On the flip side, as a so-called audience member, when you engage with media, it’s not nearly as passive as it seems on the surface. When you look at two frames of a sequential story—a comic—your brain is inventing the motion, and on a larger scale, the narrative. When you read a story, you are transmuting symbols into life. Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, said something like “Books break the shackles of time—proof that humans can work magic.” I think that’s true in a very real way.
David Metcalfe: How does that pertain to your experience as a creator?
James Curcio: Well… there’s no way to know how the audience is going to breathe life back into a work. So, you often as not discover myths are as much created by communication as miscommunication, a modern tower of Babel. We are probably quite frequently misunderstood, but sometimes the misunderstandings are the most interesting.
When two people take a different message from a story or experience, and then create something new, those myths are mutating. So without getting too unscientific, the metaphor of mutation is an important one when tracking myth history. There are many other ways that myths mutate, breed, or die off. One good, somewhat unexpected metaphor is cuisine. You see a history of conquest and peace in local foods.
Damien Williams: The only thing I’ll add is that another way to think of this is as a cross-pollination, something which can be hastened, synergized I guess, by the multiplicity of media.
David Metcalfe: Maybe we should take a step back a moment and talk about what transmedia actually is…
James Curcio: Hah. Probably a good idea. Technically transmedia is a multi-arc narrative, where different arcs occur, generally, in different mediums. Take the Firefly franchise for instance. You had the TV series. Then there were arcs in the graphic novel format. And then there was the movie. A lot of that was because of budget and logistical realities. Oftentimes transmedia is the result of the marriage of two desires, the desire to tell a multi- part narrative, and the realities involved in actually doing that kind of work. Now, a transmedia story doesn’t have to have all the same characters in each piece, or even be in the same universe, though it usually is… at least somewhat. What transmedia isn’t is a novelization, or a direct translation of a novel into film format. Clear enough?
Damien Williams: That actually clears up a lot of my thinking about the term, so thank you for that.
James Curcio: Something else you might take from this is that transmedia is simply a way of looking at content creation in a diverse, digital marketplace. It is often an ideology that lends itself to working with what you have. That’s the best case scenario, anyway…
David Metcalfe: An intriguing aspect of Mythos Media is the multi-format, multi-project transmedia elements that go beyond serial or series… this takes the interactive elements a step beyond what most people are used to when experiencing an encounter with a creative work.
James Curcio: It is sometimes more challenging for creators to grasp this concept, really, than for those that are engaging with the media. At least at first. That’s because we utilize Creative Commons in terms of Mythos Media’s distribution rights—in others words, “Mythos Media” never exclusively owns any of its projects, the creators do—and we encourage creators to build narratives, characters, worlds, and so on that interact with one another.
People ask, are you a publisher? Not in a traditional sense. Several Mythos Media projects have been released through separate publishers. It’s a brand that represents a certain ideology, about content, about creator rights—and it’s an ideology that couldn’t have come about without the digital production and distribution boom that is, at the same time, wreaking havoc across media industries.
This approach is still in its infancy in some ways, even though this project has been around since 2006. I recently talked a little about the sort of “rubix cube” perspective you might take when creating multiple arcs on my site.
David Metcalfe: What draws you in terms of “traditional” myths? In Fallen Nation: Party At The World’s End you access a lot of cross cultural mythologies.
James Curcio: Yeah. The through-line plot of Fallen Nation is based on the themes in Euripides’ The Bacchae. I’d like to think Fallen Nation gives a good example of how “traditional” mythos can be seamlessly re-purposed in modern contexts.
This isn’t something new. It’s as old as storytelling. And of course Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and many others have explored bridging the gap between ‘traditional’ myths and more so-called modern mediums and themes, and the buzz-word wasn’t out there yet, although the primary format is sequential storytelling, you might consider Sandman a transmedia project when you consider all the narrative tie-ins. Almost all mythologies are at their heart transmedia. I’m just happy to be drinking at the party, as it were.
David Metcalfe: That’s something I had commented on to Neil Gaiman in a brief twitter exchange in regards to Santa Muerte. The Death character from Sandman has played an interesting role in the development of Santa Muerte’s popular iconography in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent in Mexico) People of a certain age have grown up with this female Death character, and a lot of the commercial images of Santa Muerte sort of tag onto this.
Do you think tech changed this exchange of influences, and how creative narratives develop and are developed?
James Curcio: Yes and no. The web allows groups to use Kickstarter on top of hundreds of free distro platforms to stage multi-threaded narratives. But it takes considerable dedication and focus to really leverage these tools, same as ever. Leverage and time still take resources, even if considerably less than twenty years ago.
One of the challenges beyond just understanding the primal role myths play in our lives is working on the technical and creative skills to externalize those narratives. Compounded, as we’ve already discussed now, with the problem that each person will interpret that signal differently. In other words, the abundance of tools and content floating around out there creates a high demand on individual talent, on one hand, and a signal-to-noise problem, on the other. It also challenges small groups to work together productively. A lot of people don’t really know how to do that.
A bit more about that signal-to-noise problem… It has been a real challenge to popularize what we’re doing here, without compromising that most essential element, as I said: remaining genuine to the experience. You can’t control what your child’s going to become when it goes out into the world, you know. But you can raise it right.
David Metcalfe: It seems that with Fallen Nation, as with all your work really, you’ve been able to hit some very personal ground as well…
James Curcio: Fallen Nation, in some ways maybe. I used a lot of experience from my own roarin’ 20s, anyway. But I’d probably call Words of Traitors my most personal project, which is always a funny thing when it’s created in collaboration, with other visual artists, and with the audience that finally breathes life into it.
The experiment of Words of Traitors was to give real memories to fictional characters. The memories are the traitors. That was blended with a surrealist approach, like the idea of drifting or derive. It was a kind of terrifying experience, making myself that emotionally vulnerable in public. But I found people accepted it the same as they do any piece of fiction.
The liminal state, both as an idea and as a state of mind, also factored heavily into the stories in Words of Traitors, as well as some of the collaborative art. This is something I suggest any ‘cultural creators’ take notice of, and pay more attention to. I kept a little video record of the early stages, and some of what was going on behind the scenes, when we were fundraising on Indiegogo that you can find online.
Damien Williams: I’d like to backtrack a little. It seems that a lot of what we’re doing is to help people remember that the experience of myth, in everyday life, is about using memory and narrative to influence the experiences that we have and the world at large. Again, think about what “magic” is and means.
One of the things I try to teach my students, every semester, is that their perception is manipulated by narrative framing techniques, and to get them to recognize, understand, and utilize them, so that they won’t ever unwittingly fall prey to someone else’s myths. That includes teachers and politicians, alike, because the whole experience of politics—and by that I mean American politics, because I just don’t know enough about any other country—is a story sold to people to get them to buy into a system that then continues to sell them stories. Whether these stories bear any resemblance to “reality” doesn’t really matter; what matters, instead, is whether the stories motivate, animate, and compel the populace to believe in the narrator.
James Curcio: Exactly! Yes. I was trying to get similar ideas across in the SUNY classes I got to co-teach. It’s so important that younger people are aware of this. Myth plays an enormous, even primary role in politics, and the psychology of power… This is something revolutionaries and counterculturists alike need to have a firm grasp of.
Damien Williams: The myth structure of even small interpersonal interactions is framed in the same way. The retold party stories and tales of power and potency of a core few people, become the myths which animate the group. And when that narrative collapses or simply fails to be maintained, hegemony is often fractured. Bad news for Hegemon, good news if you wanted to write new narratives… or instate New animating principles.
James Curcio: Counterculture itself has long been more of a market force than a force of revolution.
David Metcalfe: By engaging in mythic discourse do you think this tendency towards commercialization can in some ways be subverted?
James Curcio: If so, it’d really be a first. As we discuss in the article series I was referring to a minute ago, most countercultural movements in recent memory arise simultaneous with the development of a niche market substantial enough to support it. Counterculture is a fashion, right? So maybe we have to refine what we mean by “subvert,” a bit. And at the same time, the counterculture derision toward commerce is potentially very self-defeatist.
Damien Williams: I’d say many have a very firm grasp of it, while they’re actually revolting and countering the culture. But as is known, the Problem comes in when counter becomes Culture and Revolution keeps Turning. Once we’re locked into a metanarrative of revolution-as-struggle-toward-Progress, then the “completion” of the revolution becomes a “Success,” and thus a stopping point rather than a place at which the mythos will once again have an opportunity to evolve & to be grasped by those who now Know change is possible.
David Metcalfe: How do you think transmedia plays into this, as you noted earlier, the complexity of transmedia narratives brings a different spin on the creative process. Although alternate reality games have become popular marketing tools, usually commercial ARG’s are rather fallow compared to the potential of the medium.
James Curcio: It’s complicated. There’s often this fear of a nefarious element to ARG’s, which is sort of the driving force behind the movie The Game. But a much more realistic premise is that the potentials of the medium aren’t explored because all anyone can see is the potential as a model for “crowdsourced marketing”…like you said. The bottom line is that if you see a potential for a medium or ideology that isn’t being acted on, the best thing to do is go out there and make it happen. It’s easy to sit around and bitch about how everyone else is doing it wrong. More than anything else that’s been my hope in exposing the mentality behind transmedia and ARG’s within the context of myth—that some of you will get inspired and get to work.
One of the many sort of originators of this medium was Dave Szulborski. I had the opportunity to work with him on several projects before his death—I mention him because in his book This Is Not A Game, one of the first things he does is ask, “Well, what is a game?” I had many conversations with him and one of his collaborators on that book—also a sort of luminary of ARG’s—Joseph Matheny. And, although Dave had a real fondness for the puzzle elements of ARG’s, I think all of us agreed that it wasn’t the marketing opportunities or anything groundbreaking in terms of games in general that drew us to the format. It was the idea of interactive storytelling.
So I’ll admit maybe one of the dorkiest things a person can, that I got my start in storytelling playing AD&D as a child. And it was the same thing there that drew me into it: interactive storytelling. It wasn’t long that I didn’t care about XP, “winning” or “losing.” It stopped being a game for me. So no matter what, at bottom, I think the questions we’re going to be asking are the same: what makes a good story? What draws us into different stories? How else can we interact with a narrative?
Damien Williams: Yes, very much in the same direction of thought, there. Subvert the opposition myth to incorporate its own downfall. Operate the narrative structure always with the understanding that your changes will cause others to want to change what you’ve changed. Leave room for and build tools to help that come to pass.
David Metcalfe: That sense of interactive storytelling is really compelling, and I for one can speak to it’s real life potential in the fact that one of my treasured resources in late highschool and college was Greylodge.org, which was a tandem creation to some of the ARG’s that Matheny was running at the time. That was a great resource to tap into some of the stranger facets of culture, like William S. Burroughs, Georges Bataille, Tibetan Dream Yoga, and Illuminationist Sufism.
Because it had that storytelling element it gave a sense that there really was something to be explored here, beyond just a dry academic discourse, it brought things alive.
In experiencing something like DragonCon, from the vantage point of covering it for the media, I find it really interesting that often the fantasy elements overtake any real life connections. It’s been rather surreal to be sitting at the hotel bar watching coverage of Syria, while people are eagerly searching for cosplayers to snap pictures of. To be honest it’s a bit eerie, as there is a great opportunity to use the energy garnered from these kinds of events to really speak to our current social conditions, with the interactive storytelling being a place where alternate solutions and dialogues can occur as vibrant thought experiments. I’m not sure how often this happens, however.
Damien Williams: And think of the Obama Myth as beacon of hope and change, of a reformer, and how the mere re-expression of that myth serves to divert whatever “narratively-inappropriate” structures may make themselves known. Think, for example, about the use of the “Dream Act,” the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the language in the president’s speech for the same, and how it’s been used to divert conversations away from Prism.
The President’s narrative, the one he worked for four years to cultivate, is one where he is “About” ethnic equality and “common sense” reforms to immigration and green energy and so on. He works very hard to not be about torture and spying and questionable Constitutional ethics, even if that’s what he actually does.
David Metcalfe: That’s about all the time we have… let’s open it up for some questions–
About the Panelists:
David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology, Disinfo.com, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.
James Curcio once beat a bear at chess, and Stephen Hawking in a boxing match, though he’s never managed to switch those around. He creates dystopian propaganda for lost generations of hedonistic outsiders, intellectual freaks, and incurable drug fiends. Rumors of being a key member of a harem of feral lesbians are slightly exaggerated, however. Previous brain-washing agents have taken the form of subversive novels, essays, scripts for comic and films, albums, soundtracks, podcasts and web series, visual art, and performances. His writing can be found in numerous indie publications, and has been used as literary psychedelic and mental accelerant by college co-eds as part of their required curriculum in several SUNY Binghamton classes. He is presently working on pieces for several transmedia franchises, including Pearry Teo’s Bedlam Stories, and a video game / graphic novel series Bardo.
Damien Williams traveled through time to warn Nikola Tesla of his impending doom but landed in 1982 and got born, instead. He researches, writes, and talks on the application of magic and philosophy to the wider world of pop culture, politics, and systems theory. He writes at several online outlets, and teaches at two universities.