Panel: Ethics of Storytelling with Nikesh Shukla

01 Jul 2019
15.30 - 16:45
The Barn, Corsham Court

Panel: Ethics of Storytelling with Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh Shukla 

Who gets to tell stories? Who is telling stories in the margins? If we’re telling stories that are outside our areas of expertise, how we should approach them? What is the best kind of writer when it comes to thinking about storytelling and the ethics behind it? Nikesh Shukla will ofter a practical talk based on his own experiences of writing from the margins and chair this panel with a focus on the tensions between storytelling and ownership. 

Stella Wisdom (British Library)

The ethics of situating immersive fictional storytelling alongside factual interpretation and historic objects in cultural heritage institutional exhibitions.

Galleries, libraries, archives and museums have a history of collaborating with creative practitioners; hosting residencies for artists and writers. These residencies provide opportunities to highlight collections; engage audiences; disseminate new ideas; and stimulate debate, via meaningful interactions with the institution’s communities.  However, the immersive nature of transmedia writing residencies can post ethical issues, regarding the potential for misleading the public experiencing the work.

In this presentation, Stella Wisdom reflects on two creative residencies hosted by the British Library. Theatre-maker and entertainer Christopher Green investigated the history of hypnosis in the Library’s collections. His research inspired him to write a song cycle of original material through his character the Singing Hypnotist, who healed and mesmerised at Library performances.

Rosie Garland (The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester)

The Library as the muse: the ethics of appropriating an institution’s history, building and staff, as the story world setting of a new work of fiction

Archives and libraries have a duty to preserve, curate and make historical collections accessible for readers. In today’s challenging climate when memory institutions face increasing demands to justify their existence, creative writers can bring these histories alive, securing new and reengaging existing audiences.

However, what are the ethics when the Library staff, building and processes, become the writer’s muse? Every story needs an inspiring setting, for Rosie Garland’s new novel, that backdrop is the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, where she is their first writer-in-residence.

Garland is no stranger to collaborating with the Library; in 2015 she curated a section on Gothic Women, and published an essay in the accompanying catalogue, for their exhibition Darkness and Light: Exploring the Gothic. Building from this, Garland applied for Arts Council funding for a residency, where she is using Library collections as inspiration for her new novel.

This work is set within the Library in the 1980s, where the leading character is studying for a librarianship diploma and has a summer job cataloguing the collections. To inform her writing Garland draws on memories from retired and current members of staff and readers, incorporating their remembered experiences of the Library from this decade, via personal archives of letters, photographs and diaries.

As half of musical duo the Time-Travelling Suffragettes, Garland has experience of playing with the past, through performing updated and subverted versions of nineteenth-century Music Hall songs. However, these fun performances pay respectful tribute to the Suffragette movement and the Women’s Words Manchester project, which collected real life stories of women living and working in Manchester.

Incorporating memories and histories into creative work enriches the narrative, but there is an ethical and moral issue of both honouring individual’s stories and recollections, and the collections in the archive. This paper explores these issues.

Rob Sherman’s residency interconnected to the Lines In The Ice exhibition, which displayed collection items relating to Arctic exploration expeditions, including John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. In the hybrid physical/digital installation On My Wife’s Back, Sherman created a narrative about the fictional Isaac Scinbank, commissioned to search for Franklin’s missing expedition. It included an artistic collaboration with British Library book conservators to make a faux-historical diary, called the “salmon book”, which was installed in the gallery as an ‘exhibit’ and which he updated with Scinbank’s diary entries.

These residencies used magic, theatre, deception, forgery and digital wizardry to encourage public visitors to immerse themselves in fictional narratives. However, from an institutional curatorial perspective, it is also important that these experiences, installations and interventions do not undermine the authority of the Library’s knowledge, or call into question the veracity of exhibition interpretation. In this paper, we will explore how the Library balanced these multiple conflicting demands to produce work that engaged audiences without undermining the Library’s reputation.

Jillian Abbott (City University of New York)

Lies, (Not Quite) All Lies, The Ethics of Creating an Online Persona – A Practitioners Perspective

In this paper, I will discuss the ethics and complexities of constructing what has become (in the process of constructing it) an inauthentic life online.

I began writing my Instagram Blog A Year of Mindful Eating: Food stories that take you home (YOME) in 2015 to document the dissonance I felt at being a foreigner, an outsider, a migrant, a lone woman, and a single mother living far from home in New York City. I chose to construct this narrative by contrasting the food and culture of my hometown in rural Australia, with the food and culture in my current home, New York City.

This memoir is authentic, and inauthentic. As I used food to explore migration, identity and what the Welsh call Hiraeth (homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past), I came to terms with my American identity, while maintaining the “yearning” persona online.

In this blog I employ popular Instagram tropes such as food, and “mindfulness.” This allows me to present a persona that appeals to Instagram uses, thereby attracting followers (16,500+), likes, and intensely personal commenting. I do not eat mindfully, though I truly wish I did. And I no longer yearn for Australia.

Many of my followers don’t know intuitively that I’m a writer. They comment from their hearts as if my posts aren’t written, rewritten and edited, as if they aren’t the result of deliberate decision making about writerly choices. Am I deceiving them, even as I cherish their responses?

Have I crossed a line? Are their lines in social media. Is being true to the story the same as being true?